Noah Baumbach’s versatility can be traced back to his 1995 directorial debut, Kicking and Screaming. There aren’t many filmmakers that capture awkward, hilariously realistic characters quite like Baumbach. The filmmaker can either make us fall in love with his characters or absolutely detest them; as much as you may have loved Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) in Marriage Story, you grow to despise Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) in The Squid and The Whale. It was Kicking and Screaming, though, that established many of the stylistic tropes that he would use throughout his career.

What Is ‘Kicking and Screaming’ About?

Josh Hamilton as Grover smoking with Olivia d'Abo as Jane in Kicking and Screaming (1995)
Image via Trimark Pictures Inc.

Kicking and Screaming follows a group of friends in the months following their college graduation. While they all think that they’re more than ready to face the responsibilities of adulthood, they discover together that they’re not suited to leave college life for good. Grover (Josh Hamilton) is in the midst of an extended argument with his girlfriend, Jane (Olivia d’Abo), who wants to study in Prague; Max (Chris Eigeman) has to question his wealthy upbringing when he falls in love with the quirky college freshman Miami (Parker Posey); Otis (Carlos Jaccott) has a perpetual fear of going anywhere; Chet (Eric Stoltz) refuses to graduate after a decade in classes.

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Baumbach’s films have evolved as he’s grown up. He was less than 30 years old during the production of his feature film debut, and his films have steadily tackled issues that he could relate to. He waited until he was older to tell the midlife crisis dramedy Greenberg, and the production of Marriage Story began following his own divorce. While seeing the shenanigans of a group of obnoxious college slackers sounds like it would be irritating, Noah Baumbach showed in Kicking and Screaming that cynicism is not the same thing as insight. By questioning his characters’ behavior and forcing them to come to grips with reality, Noah Baumbach made a surprisingly mature film that stands as one of his greatest achievements.

‘Kicking and Screaming’ Is a Great Time Capsule

The genius of Kicking and Screaming‘s opening is that these characters are fun to listen to, but they’re not the type of people you would ever want to spend an extended amount of time with. The majority of their conversations are extended trivia games about who can name all the Friday the 13th sequels, or who can think of eight movies where monkeys play a pivotal role. While each character gets a few snide remarks, Noah Baumbach does not idealize their performative knowledge. It’s clear that the skills that they’ve amassed from their education aren’t sustainable.

Noah Baumbach’s gift is that he slowly takes the film in a more sincere direction as the characters themselves are starting to hold themselves accountable. He was able to highlight post-graduation anxieties in a way that few 1990s comedies other than Reality Bites were able to do. It’s also a great time capsule; while the characters certainly fit the description of being “dude bros,” they’re thankfully removed from aggressive online behavior. These characters actually have to go out and meet people, and they can miss out on a night of fun because they’re “not on the list” for a party.

Noah Baumbach’s Characters Are Funny and Distinct

Parker Posey as Miami holding up a sign that says I cheated on you in Kicking and Screaming (1995)
Image via Trimark Pictures Inc.

Among the funniest standouts in the film is Otis, who despite earning high grades, fears even leaving his house. Baumbach doesn’t stigmatize his anxiety, but he creates a lot of humorous moments like when Otis decides to skip graduate school and spend his days working at a video store. Otis’ fear of commitment could have been irritating, but Baumbach is able to generate empathy for him as he becomes the laughingstock of his friend group. Otis’ arc is hilariously intertwined with the character he could very well end up being; Chet. Chet is so obsessed with showing off his knowledge that he still works a part time job at a bar, despite his decade of being a student.

Max is the most overtly sexist and obnoxious character, but Baumbach revels in his ignorance. Max doesn’t have anything better to do than to spend time talking about how much he hates underclassman book clubs. However, Miami gives him a taste of his own medicine; she’s brash and self-assured, and she’s not turned off by his arrogance. Ironically, Miami is everything that Max seems to detest; she’s young and not very wealthy. Despite their obvious differences, Max begins to fall for her, realizing there’s a larger world beyond the one that he’s living in.

Baumbach Hits His Emotional Stride With Grover’s Arc

Baumbach really hits emotional highs as Grover begins to contemplate his relationship with Jane. Initially, Grover is absolutely shocked when she decides to travel to Prague to pursue her love of Kafka; he can’t stand to think that she wouldn’t simply make her life revolve around his wishes. Baumbach makes the point that Grover is not truly ready for a relationship, and the only way for him to appreciate Jane is to spend some time away from her. He learns that he’s not going to be able to spend any more time with his equally immature friends.

The tone of the shifts during a conversation that Grover has with his father, played by Elliot Gould in a hilarious cameo role. His father seems to think that he can still be the same carefree, womanizing person he was during his college years, and Grover finally realizes the ramifications of arrested development. This is followed by a rather lovely flashback scene that shows an early moment from Grover’s relationship with Jane. It’s nice to see that there was a time when he was unafraid to be open; he’s resisting showing emotion in public so he can simply feel more mature than he actually is. His regretful line “when I tell people about this in the future, I know that it’ll make a good story of my young adult life,” Baumbach is showing his own sense of self-reflection.

Baumbach’s latest film White Noise explores a family’s struggles to survive an apocalyptic event; while the novel by Don DeLillo was released in 1985, perhaps Baumbach was drawn to the material because of its relevance to the last few years. He’s shown a remarkable amount of awareness by selecting stories that meet his age; Kicking and Screaming avoids the “freshman feature” stigma, and holds up as one of his best.

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