Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Kicking and Screaming Movie Review

Watching all those Whit Stillman movies a couple of months ago got me thinking again about Kicking and Screaming, a movie about four friends recently graduated from college, which I hadn’t seen since I was their age. It was Noah Baumbach’s first feature film (he shares a story credit with Oliver Berkman), made on a fairly low budget in the mid-90s when low budgets were sheik, and features the actor Chris Eigeman, whose presence is part of what connects the movie in my mind to Stillman’s work. That and similar writing styles that focus on educated characters who speak literately and engagingly on a variety of topics.


When I was 21 I found Baumbach’s take on life after college to be spot on witty and accurate in its depiction of both college life and the great unknown that looms for undergrad seniors. Many years later, the film has lost something for me. As a young man I aspired to be the characters in this film, despite the fact that they have no direction and do nothing with their lives at 22. That didn’t matter to me. They talked and acted smart and said funny things and behaved like they might remain 22 forever. Now well into my 30s, the film mainly retains an element of nostalgia. It makes me think about my college days, which I suppose is part of what Baumbach wants.

The four friends are Grover (Josh Hamilton), Max (Eigeman), Skippy (Jason Wiles), and Otis (Carlos Jacott). It’s hard to discern why they’re friends with each other except that they go to college together. They don’t seem to have too much in common except a knack for intellectual bullshitting. And as is pointed out a couple of times, they all talk the same. Small liberal arts colleges tend to draw students of a certain type. Mine certainly did. Inasmuch as my college loved to preach diversity, the truth is that we were a rather homogenous group of undergrads.

Noah Baumbach went to Vassar College, a school not unlike the one I attended. I had the chance to visit Vassar a few times while my older brother was a student there. From the limited knowledge I have of the place, it’s clear Baumbach based his fictional college on his real life alma mater. It’s a land full of offbeat characters like the guy who goes around hugging everyone; the European student who seems more sophisticated than everyone else, especially when he’s standing nude reciting poetry in a dorm room; and an older student named Chet – and played by Eric Stoltz – now in his tenth year at the school. He works in a local bar and has all the inside info on the best classes and best professors – because he’s taken just about every course.

To many people, Chet’s situation probably sounds like a bit of a nightmare. But to a 22 year old about to get that diploma, the idea of staying in school forever doesn’t always seem so bad. I have great memories of my college years. It was a time of studying, learning, growing up, and (sort of) learning how to cope with the world. I often wish I could return to studying now. Chet is the epitome of that wish fulfillment. He’s not a sad character. He’s got it figured out.

It’s the other four guys who are the sad characters. Skippy enrolls in classes for two reasons: he feels he didn’t take advantage of what the college had to offer before he graduated; and his girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey) is a senior. Max and Grover rent a house near campus because they just aren’t ready to fend for themselves. Otis defers his graduate school admission to stick around too. The film is broken up into segments labeled with such scholastic headings as “Midterms,” “Christmas Vacation,” and “Finals.” When four years of your life revolve around these kinds of natural breaks, where summer and Christmas vacations are periods of time that wrest you from your true home and your life is defined by the academic year, you continue to think in those terms even after they no longer have any meaning for you.

Grover might be the saddest of all because Jane (Olivia D’Abo), his senior year girlfriend, has left for Prague to pursue her interest in creative writing. He thought they’d be living together in Brooklyn after graduation. That she is moving on with life and having new experiences only exacerbates Grover’s feelings of stasis. So he sits around campus bars drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes – affectations he picked up while in college. He finds undergraduate coeds to sleep with and listens to his father (an equally dour Elliott Gould) psychoanalyze various players on the New York Knicks as well as their then coach Pat Riley. Even Grover’s parents were in a kind of holding pattern while Grover was in college and now that he’s finished they’ve decided to separate. What is a 22 year old supposed to do with that information? And does he really want to listen to his dad talk to him about having to go back to using condoms and sleeping with other women. “I’m not quite ready to accept you as a human being,” Grover bluntly tells him.

Kicking and Screaming is likely to appeal to the niche market of people who went to overpriced private liberal arts colleges. If your idea of a good time is sitting around in a diner or a bar with friends discussing books and philosophy, then this might be a movie for you. In the end, Grover tries for spontaneity to inject some energy into his life, but he discovers that life after college requires better planning. After all is said and done, all he has to remind himself of his college years (the best years of his life, perhaps?) are his memories – those flashbacks that show us the development of his relationship with Jane. That’s all any of us have really. And I wonder if you really sit down and talk with my old classmates, would they ultimately admit to maybe thinking a little too often and too wistfully about those days as well?

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