Here’s a joke: How do you make God laugh? Make a plan. ~ Chet
If Rick Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is the pinnacle exercise in ‘good-old-days,’ high school nostalgia, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming lies at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Baumbach’s debut film hits at the heart of the grand ‘what now?’ conundrum that undergrads awaken to upon graduation. In addition the film deals with some of the shallowest people–archetypes of the liberal arts, Gen-X crowd of no-it-alls–and manages to make them surprisingly endearing and relatable in their naiveness towards life. Whereas Linklater’s immortal classic invokes a longing for the days of sex, drugs and rock and roll, Kicking and Screaming is set during the unsure time many people would rather forget.
Set in the mid nineties when long parted hair, corduroys and plaid shirts we’re the essentials of any pre-hipster era twenty-somethings, the film revolves around a handful of recently departed academics. There’s the hip English/Creative Writing major Grover (Josh Hamilton), the surly philosophy scholar Max (Chris Eigemen), and the immature, highly neurotic movie buff Otis (Carlos Jacott). Playing the Dazed role of elder Wooderson is Chet (the wonderful Eric Stoltz), a nonchalant intellectual pushing 30 who is blissful as a tenth-plus year senior.
Opening at a the kind of posh graduation cocktail party well-suited for the stereotypical privileged Ivy Leaguer, the gang sit sipping their drinks contemplating the next step. Grover’s equally witted girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) is off to Prague for a year, leaving the film’s protagonist bitter and alone. Otis is scheduled to start Engineering school in Milwaukee but chooses to defer the acceptance to stay with his friends and work at a video store. Max finds it necessary to analyze and rip apart the gang’s monotonous conversation pieces while ripping through the daily crossword like a paycheck depends on it.
Released in the wake of the Pulp Fiction casual dialogue craze, and amidst the rise of the Seinfeld sitcom, the characters in Screaming drone on about film trivia, pointless ‘what if’ scenarios and casual observations of the incoming freshmen of the opposite sex. The screenplay at first comes off as a bit too polished for its so-called casual dialogue but as the film progresses the characters quickly become parodies of the hipster culture. On a number of occasions auxiliary characters even go as far as to say to the group, “you know, you all talk the same.” In one scene when Grover scoffs to his father (a memorable cameo by Elliot Gould) that he never got into “the whole coffeehouse scene,” it’s evident he’s lying.
The mindless banter of Kicking and Screaming is postmodern but in the most unpretentious sort of manner because Baumbach realizes how naïve and hypocritical his characters are. While they verbally dissect those around them and maintain an elitist attitude towards their individual predicaments–that is, not knowing what the hell to do with their newly appointed degrees–they realize they need each other more than they would like to admit.
The level of comedic uncomfortableness that arises in Kicking and Screaming, particularly with Max, who strives to be smarter than everyone else in the room, is a theme that would carry on to Baumbach’s 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale (see the Jesse Eisenberg character’s casual plagiarism of a Pink Floyd song and his father’s (a serpent-like Jeff Daniels) argument for its artistic merit). Academics, who are completely in love with themselves but ultimately are clueless to life’s master plan, seem to be the archetypes of Baumbach’s work.
As the film comes to a close few characters come away on top, although a number of loose ends are tied and a certain monologue at an airport leaves Grover with some hope for reaching enlightenment. Meanwhile Chet’s barside argument for his lifestyle choices may be the finest explanation for why some people ignore the career driven life in lieu of casual bliss. Overall the film closes on a somber, albeit true to life note.
The Squid and the Whale, an overly bleak portrayal about the consequences of divorce, quickly established Baumbach as a filmmaker to keep an eye on, however, Kicking and Screaming is his understated masterpiece. Cinematically the film is a mix of low-budget camerawork and effective flashbacks that are so uniquely stunning it’s a shame the technique of freeze frame to live action isn’t utilized more often. And the film’s various locales–from grunge music clubs, townie bars, tight dorm rooms and the stale dark wood interiors of off campus houses–create the perfect mise en scéne for any college backdrop.
For viewers currently suffering the unsure limbo of life out of college the film is a refreshing eye-opener to the ubiquitous dilemma. For the older/wiser viewer the story may recall–with a grin and a chuckle–the immature, naïve years that most go through and how these experiences often necessitate the maturation process. In Baumbach’s eyes we’ve all kicked and screamed our way through life’s obstacles at some point.