' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Kicking and Screaming

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My Great Movies: Kicking and Screaming

Something to treasure: a movie a close group of friends can employ as shorthand, as instant familiarity, as bonding, through its various quotes. I have friends to whom I can say "Yeah, I'll woo you" which will instantly lead to one declaring "Go away, cookie man" which causes another to ask "Who the hell bought black eyed peas?" On and on and on. These exchanges fill my heart with joy.

They are culled from Noah Baumbach's debut as both a director and screenwriter, "Kicking and Screaming", released in 1995, and examining four friends who have just graduated college ("So how does that work? Do I have to start paying my loan back, like, tomorrow?") and now are either at the inevitable loss of what to do or frightened to get started. This is to say the film doesn't have much of a story. But as the esteemed Roger Ebert noted: "of course it wouldn't; this is a movie about characters waiting for their plots to begin."

Our slightly heroic quartet: Grover (Josh Hamilton), the "aspiring" novelist. Max (Chris Eigeman), surly, suspicious of any new friends, and upon graduation wishing he was already "retiring after a lifetime of hard labor." Otis (Carlos Jacott), neurotic, antsy, though sometimes testy, who is supposed to attend graduate school in Milwaukee but, frightened of the one hour time zone change, amongst other things, decides to defer his admission date. And passive Skippy (Jason Wiles), dating the younger Miami (Parker Posey), who chooses to re-enroll in school much to the chagrin of his pals, not that he actually does his schoolwork ("I think he just watches TV and drinks Colt 45"). He also unsuccessfully attempts to christen their clan as "The Cougars!" Alas.

Will they all end up like Chet (the one, the only Eric Stoltz), tending bar at the townie watering hole, a ten year student ("I'm a philosophy/German major") who references his "thesis" now and again but seems to have no plans to leave at any point resembling the near future.

As we know, my scholastic tenure ended in, for lack of a better term, massive failure (and, quite frankly, I'm still okay with that). So how is it a film set in those laconic post-graduate days appeal to someone who never actually experienced them? Well, I also can't say I have ever trained a female boxer nor have I wandered around Vienna for an entire night with a passionate French woman (though, God, I wish some day I would) but that does not prevent one from enjoying those films and perhaps feeling a connection to the characters.

Of the hundreds of millions of quotes I could and would love to toss about there is quite clearly one that hits home the hardest. (And I'm not talking about Otis refusing to send back the beer with "food in it" for fear of setting off the waitress which I have addressed previously.) It is Max declaring:

"I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now."

Outside of our jacket-with-the-leather-elbow-patch-wearing band of prospective "Cougars!" there is one character that might be the most essential even though she only appears in the present in the graduation party scene that opens the film. This would be Jane (Olivia D'Abo), Grover's girlfriend, a fellow writer, who fidgets with her retainer, carries a notepad with her everywhere to jot down story ideas (such a turn on), and, oh yeah, just happens to get accepted to graduate school....in Prague.

At this discovery Grover immediately acts like a jilted lover even though, technically, he has yet to be jilted. He, in fact, ensures his own jilt. He downs a cocktail except, as Jane pithily notes, "You better slow down, there isn't any alcohol in that."

Jane: "You've never even been to Prague.
Grover: "Oh, I've been to Prague." (Pause.) "Well, I haven't 'been to Prague' been to Prague but I know that thing - that, Stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, date a sculptor, now I know how bad American coffee is thing..."
Jane: "Beer. They have good beer there."
Grover: "... how bad American beer is thing."

Totally in tune to the difficulty of convincing Grover of anything Jane sort of asks him to come with her through the use of snide little comments and clever asides. Grover is not having it. He keeps unleashing insults and his own snide little comments as both a defense mechanism and a pitiful attempt to prevent her from leaving. In the course of this conversation we get snippets of the past - Jane got Grover hooked on smoking but now she's quit and he hasn't. He's drinking to get sloshed, she isn't drinking at all. One senses a bit of the Annie Hall/Alvy Singer Dynamic - she has matured, he hasn't.

Is he afraid to go to Prague? Perhaps. For what reason? Afraid of committment? Afraid of leaving his university campus biosphere? Mere male idiocy?

Interspersed throughout the film, cued each time by a black and white still, are sweet flashbacks to the burgeoning relationship of Grover and Jane that work as perfect tonic to so much of the film's arsenic. Meeting in a short story class where every writer's work is compared to another writer, meeting again at the coffee shop where Jane works ("I'm responding to your witticism now." "Twelve hours after I said it?") and so on, as they realize what they have in common and draw closer.

Nostalgia, baby. A smattering of it. Grover living in the past. We never really see what led to the downfall of the relationship, and we wouldn't because that's not what Grover chooses to remember. He recollects only the good parts. Nostalgia hangs over "Kicking and Screaming" more than anything else, more than the inane banter and the questions of the future. Otis going back to live with his mother and Chet waxing fondly on all the graduation parties he has attended ("It doesn't hold a candle to the one six years ago - there was a horse at that one") and Skippy on the verge of turning into Chet and Max dating a high school girl who, admittedly, may have a more level head but seems to indicate Max reverting to teenage behavior, talking excitedly of going to the, gulp, prom and Grover gallivanting with freshmen women. Even Grover's dad (an understated, sad-eyed Elliot Gould) who turns up for an extended sequence mentions his new girlfriend while also admitting he and Grover's mom aren't divorced but just separated. Everyone seems to be reminiscing the very recent past.

Garrison Keillor has said that for Lutherans one of the gravest sins is nostalgia. Well, I'm Lutheran and I'm as nostalgic as anyone. My time in Arizona was a hot, sweaty, depressing, dysfunctional mess but whenever I look back on it now what jumps to mind? Burgers and far too many Sierra Nevadas at Icebreakers and staying up until 3 am on work nights watching more Seinfeld re-runs than the human mind could ever comprehend and the jukebox at the Red Onion that actually took quarters (on which I often played "Spiderwebs" by No Doubt for reasons that may indicate even more nostalgia) and I think to myself, "Man, I miss Phoenix." Except then I have to pound myself on the forehead and scream, "No! No, I don't miss it at all!"

On the flip side I can experience one of the greatest weekends of my entire life and on the drive home, not even 6 hours after it ended, already find myself reminiscing, blasting "Glory Days", getting misty-eyed, wishing I could go back.

Why must we do this? Why does Grover sit in the dark listening to Jane's answering machine message over and over but never garner the guts to return the call? It's like that heartbreaking (to me) scene in "The Myth of Fingerprints" where Roy Scheider, the father, goes down to the basement and watches the old home movies. If only it was always like this....yeah, it's kinda dangerous to think that way, isn't it?

The conclusion of the film finds Grover finally taking the initiative (in what precise way I will not reveal) and making the Passionate Plea which, of course, goes up in flames. It's good stuff, absolutely, but notice a particular phrase he employs during the Plea. "When I tell people about this in the future..." He has already fast forwarded to the point in the future where he will be reminiscing it! He's reminiscing it before it even occurs! And then it doesn't even occur!

The film then flashes back one final time to Grover and Jane with him making a rather bold gesture, almost, if not more, bold than the one he has just attempted. And for one fleeting moment you feel it's not just nostalgia, it's not just Grover flashing back to a happier moment. If he was assertive back then and he was assertive just now then he can be assertive again and that might just be the reason he finally needs to look forward.


Castor said...

You had me for a minute... I thought you were talking about Kicking & Screaming, the one with Will Ferrell

Derek Armstrong said...

"What? Why is someone commenting on this post now?"

Well, I'm going back and reading some of your old reviews, especially of movies I love. Like this one.

What a fantastic piece you've written ... I want to go watch this movie again RIGHT NOW.

This movie came along at the absolute perfect time in my life in terms of its themes. I had just returned from the graduation of the class two years behind mine, meaning that the only people still at my college that I knew were the people who had been freshmen when I was a senior. In any case, it was a moment of great introspection about the end of my college days, even two years after they had officially "ended."

I rented the movie, not even fully knowing what it was about I don't think, within a day of returning, and have considered it a favorite since. (In fact, I kind of feel like I might have already told this story if you wrote about it elsewhere on your blog ... if I am repeating myself, forgive me.)

I don't think Baumbach has ever been better than this in terms of putting into words what I was thinking, or immediately wished I HAD been thinking, so true did they seem. The many brilliant observations about our relationship to time and to the events in our lives are enough to both fill a person with melancholy, and fill them with hope. Any movie that does that is damn close to a masterpiece.