Noah Baumbach's "Kicking and Screaming" takes many of us back to one of life's more painful periods: the immediate aftermath of college graduation. For a lot of us, especially those whose years on campus preceded the rancor of the Vietnam War era, college was four years in a cocoon, filled with hard work and fun and more friends than perhaps we ever had before or ever would again.
Some of us graduates were plunged into uncertainty because of a change in goals. But this film's four young men, whom we meet at their graduation party, don't seem to have thought about life after college, and they are clinging to the past with all their might.
For a first film, "Kicking and Screaming" is at once ambitious and uncompromising; it is in fact quite serious even though it is essentially a comedy. It's the kind of film that is worth more for what it promises in Baumbach's future than for what he actually delivers.
Two remarks, both made by women, cut to the heart of the matter: that these four guys talk alike and what they talk about is trivia. They even resemble each other in that all four are slim young men with dark hair and regular rather than handsome features. As a result it takes some time to be able to distinguish Grover (Josh Hamilton), Max (Chris Eigeman), Skippy (Jason Wiles) and Otis (Carlos Jacott) from one another. They are well-spoken, even at times erudite. Eigeman was also in Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona," the films that "Kicking and Screaming" most resembles in tone and attitude.
It's a difficult film to get into, for it is punctuated with flashbacks of Grover's longing memories of the radiant young woman (Olivia d'Abo) he let get away from him and with periodic bottom-of-the-screen announcements like "Spring Break"; at times we wonder if the whole picture may be a flashback. It isn't; it's just that the guys, who share a nice old Craftsman cottage, behave as if they were still in school, with Skippy even continuing to take classes.
The film is also hard to connect with because Baumbach is tough-minded enough not to try to work up undue sympathy for these four, who spend a large hunk of their time at a local bar, presided over by Chet (Eric Stoltz), who has settled for life as a permanent student.
Baumbach might well have dared to be a bit more conventional and shown them at least trying to get jobs. Only Otis does, finding work at a video store. Meanwhile, we're left wondering just how they're supporting themselves in this protracted limbo of feeling sorry for themselves; whatever misery they experience is self-inflicted and not from trying to make their way in the world.
Baumbach, however, pushes his rigorous stance to the extent that you begin to wonder why you're bothering to watch the aimless lives of these four unfold. Baumbach surely does make these characters, all of whom are impeccably acted, absolutely real, but at 25 he may be too close to the material to achieve the detachment from which irony and meaning flow. Besides D'Abo's Jane, the other young women are Parker Posey's Miami, who has outgrown Skippy, and Cara Buono as a vivacious 16-year-old townie.
All three are lots more grown up than the men, which is certainly true to life. Elliott Gould is refreshing as Grover's father, as open as Grover is self-absorbed. Finally settling on Grover as his key character, Baumbach builds unobtrusively to a knock-your-socks-off finish that allows "Kicking and Screaming" to conclude on its strongest note.
\o7 * MPAA rating: R, for strong language and some sexuality\f7 .\o7 Times guidelines: The film is strong on four-letter words, appropriate to its milieu, and the sex is minimal.\f7
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'Kicking and Screaming'
Josh Hamilton: Grover
Eric Stoltz: Chet
Elliott Gould: Grover's Dad
Olivia d'Abo: Jane
A Trimark presentation. Writer-director Noah Baumbach. Producer Joel Castleberg. Executive producers Carol Baum, Sandy Gallin. Cinematographer Steven Bernstein. Editor J. Kathleen Gibson. Costumes Mary Jane Fort. Music supervisor Lonnie Sill. Production designer Dan Whifler. Set decorator Gail Bennett. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
\o7 * Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 848-3500; the NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-8099, and the Town Center 4, Bristol at Anton, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.