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Kicking and Screaming: The Criterion Collection

For writer-director Noah Baumbach, 2005 was a very good year. His screenplay for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), co-written with director Wes Anderson, had been lauded by critics the previous year. Then his fourth film, The Squid and the Whale, starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, was nominated for an Academy Award (for best original screenplay) and won a truckload of honors from film festivals and critics' organizations. It must have felt very good, coming as it did after a decade of relative silence — his debut film Kicking and Screaming (1995), made when he was 24 years old, was one of a number of popular independent pictures that paved the way for the faux-indie movement of the late 1990s, but his two follow-up films flopped. Highball (1997), a sloppy, lightweight comedy made in six days, and the darker, more self-consciously arty Mr. Jealousy (1998) received lukewarm receptions and went unseen by most moviegoers. Baumbach's filmmaking style in those early efforts was most often compared to that of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan), with both directors enamored by ensemble casts of well-crafted characters who mostly sit around having conversations about their relationships, each other's faults, and popular culture. It's a technique that many indie filmmakers have embraced — perhaps because they find writing dialogue easier than plotting a complicated storyline — but as overused as it is, when done well it can be extraordinarily entertaining. In the case of Kicking and Screaming, it's rarely been done better.

"Eight hours ago, I was Max Belmont, English major, college senior," kvetches newly graduated Max (Chris Eigeman). "Now I am Max Belmont who does nothing. All of my accomplishments are in the past." This crippling sense of uncertainty infects Max's circle of friends, who find themselves still hanging out three months after graduation, incapable of making the leap into the world outside academia. Grover (Josh Hamilton) is worried about his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d'Abo) leaving to study in Prague — "you'll come back a bug," he tells her. Max spends far too much time sitting around doing crossword puzzles. Otis (Carlos Jacott) and Skippy (Jason Wiles) just keep taking classes. And Chet (Eric Stoltz), the oldest of the bunch, has remained a student for ten years while working as a bartender and dating undergrads ("As you can probably imagine, I've lost quite a few girlfriends to graduation," he tells the guys). Unable to make a clean break from each other or college life, they circle endlessly through trips to the local bar and each other's apartments, sniping, gossiping, and debating important issues like who would win in a fight, Friday the 13th's Jason or A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Kreuger, and who's the sexiest Victoria's Secret model. "You guys all talk alike," says Skippy's girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey), who, like all of the women caught in their solipsistic wake, views them with an equal measure of fondness and frustration. Yet despite their awareness that it's time that they get up, get out, and move on, none of these wiseguys seem to be able to do much more than keep talking and talking, as if keeping up a running commentary on their lives is an adequate alternative to actually doing something with them.

*          *          *

One of the greatest strength's of Kicking and Screaming is that Noah Baumbach doesn't try to make any of his characters especially sympathetic in their slacker journey. He leaves that to the actors, who make these layabouts lovable, and to the snappy, crisp dialogue. Max finds himself dating a girl who's far younger than he initially thought. "I'm going to be 17 tomorrow," she tells him. "Wow," he replies. "Now you can read Seventeen magazine and get all the references." When Jane tells Grover that he's acting like a child, he answers. "Yeah, but if I was a child, you'd find that endearing." As with Stillman's talky, anecdotal films, the pleasures of Kicking and Screaming don't come from the plot, because there isn't much of one — these characters are all trapped in a moment in time, like insects in amber. As much as they may complain about how much they're not doing, they continue to not do much and don't want to change. It's an affectionately bitchy commentary on the lack of motivation afflicting a certain segment of white, middle-class college grads — the same "now what?" question that plagued Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate three decades earlier — and a deft character study of a group of well-meaning losers who make floundering into an art form.

The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Kicking and Screaming more than does justice to this charming film. As we've come to expect from Criterion, the quality of the remastered, high-def anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is very sharp, from a source-print with excellent color and virtually no specks or scratches. Some of the darker portions — nighttime street scenes and those set in bars, especially — are a bit murky, but as this is one of Criterion's director-approved releases, one has to assume that Baumbach liked it that way. The new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix (English, with optional English subtitles) is quite good, and more than adequate for a film that's substantially dialogue-driven. Instead of the usual commentary track, Baumbach discusses the film in two new interview features, one solo and the other with cast members Eigeman, Hamilton, and Jacott. Both are modestly entertaining and will please fans of the film. Also on board are some very short, fluffy 1995 cast interviews that originally ran on IFC, an amusing short by Baumbach starring Jacott called "Conrad and Butler Take a Vacation," and three deleted scenes. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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