Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Kicking and Screaming first published by

Kicking and Screaming begins simultaneoulsy at the end and at the beginning – but mostly in the middle. For it opens, as an intertitle states, on ‘Graduation Night’, with a group of friends wittily – and warily – celebrating both the completion of their education, and their emergence into a new world of adulthood and work. As his friend Otis (Carlos Jacott) makes a toast “to life after college”, feckless 22-year-old Grover (Josh Hamilton) discovers that his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) has been accepted into a literary programme in Prague. When Jane tells Grover, “You could come with me, you know,” instead of leaping unto the breach and seizing the opportunity, he stalls. So do his friends – self-loathing Max (Chris Eigeman), dumb-assed Skippy (Jason Wiles) and neurotic Otis – and over the next year, rather than find their vocation, they just hang around their old college, flirting with younger co-eds, getting drunk and increasingly despising themselves and each other – all under the watchful eye of Chet (Eric Stotlz), the philosophy postgrad-cum-bartender who has stayed for ten years, and has no intention ever of leaving.

This sophisticated if maudlin tale of arrested development also launched the filmmaking career of Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha, The Meyerowitz Stories)  – and, incidentally, of associate producer Jason Blum (now CEO of Blumhouse Productions), who had been Baumbach’s college roommate and got family friend Steve Martin to endorse the screenplay when Baumbach was looking for investors. The film’s focus on preppy graduates and its sharp, seemingly frivolous dialogue show the clear influence of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona), with the presence of Stillman regular Eigeman – in fully catty/decadent Stillman-esque mode – clinching the connection. Yet it is also easy to discern in it the graduation of Baumbach’s own rather different future of making films that dwell on extraordinarily ordinary characters and the close observation of life’s minutiae. Obviously Kicking and Screaming itself is concerned precisely with starting out and moving on, as it captures an extended moment when four young men have become stuck in time.

Time, and the desire to alter its momentum, are key here. “I wish we were just going off to war. Or retiring. I wish I was retiring after a lifetime of hard labour,” comments Max, faced with life decisions and a future that he would rather just skip. “I wish this year would last forever,” Jane tells Grover after they meet and fall in love in their final year of college. “I just hope we keep this,” agrees Grover, and then sets about trying to achieve just that by haunting the townie bar where he used to drink with her, and turning the cigarette smoking to which she had introduced him into a habit – although the absence of Jane herself from these nostalgic efforts mockingly undermines their whole point. Instead Jane is conjured only in tender flashbacks, even as Grover cannot bring himself to listen in full to her messages (from Prague) on his answering machine. As he remembers the awkward time when they almost shared their first kiss – naturally he hesitated – and when he declared, in an attempt to break the awkwardness, “I just wish we were an old couple”, we see a man wishing his life away and incapable of living in the moment. Yet it is, as Jane points out, “a long life”, there is still time and, maybe, he’ll learn.

Summary: Noah Baumbach’s debut is a witty not-coming-of-age story set among arrested college graduates.

© Anton Bitel