Kicking and Screaming (1995)

4 02 2014

I guess some context is in order here. I just graduated from college a little over a month and I haven’t made any progress with what you might categorize as the rest of my life. I include this introduction because it is the very sensation that stands as an obstacle to the individuals in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. It’s a movie about being unable to move on from college and even though I am, comparatively speaking, only a recent graduate, the anxiety brought on by an aimless existence resonates so deeply it’s a little unfair. I’ll argue there’s more to the film than just “oh, this seems familiar” but I won’t ignore that part of the film’s sting comes from my own proximity to the situation. It’s a movie about where I am in life right now and if that sounds corny, be reassured that it’s not a life or death situation. Instead, it’s just an annoying and upsetting one.


Grover, Max, Skippy, and Otis have all graduated from college. However, they have particular plans afterwards. Otis seeks to continue his education through grad school but the one hour time difference between New York and Milwaukee seems too much for him. Grover also has plans, moving to Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Jane. However, this all dissolves when she informs him that she’s also continuing her education and doing so in Prague. The two effectively breakup leaving the four guys with nothing much to do but sit around, get drunk, and feel anxious about their lack of a future.


The presence of Chris Eigeman as Max alone invites some comparison to Whit Stillman’s work and Baumbach’s script seems to operate using the same type of clever verbal explosions. If there’s an observable difference, it’s that Stillman’s dialogue, while sad and aching underneath the surface, lacks the immediate poignancy of Baumbach’s. There’s an almost tragic self-loathing in every line here, one that announces a character’s unrest in the text itself but is intentionally masked by the character’s own  delivery of such dialogue. The characters that populate Baumbach’s world desperately want to cry out and announce their malaise. That’s far too dramatic and probably a little unattractive so instead, everyone casually floats their sadness to the surface. Throwing it into an ocean of witty dialogue like a life preservation vest, hoping that one of their friends will save them. Of course, everyone here is trying to stay afloat so little can be done to save their friends, who begin to resemble mere acquaintances anyway. Perhaps the metaphor is forced, but my point remains the same: the humor of characters is a self-preservation technique. They use it to mask their fears, which they secretly want to talk about at length.


Superficially, Kicking and Screaming is about being unable to move on, from college in particular. This doesn’t seem like the most revolutionary idea or concept but it is one that Baumbach frames in way that captures the anguish of the transition. Otis, for example, is unable to attend grad school because of a one hour time difference. His complaint seems trivial and childish (the latter characteristic repeatedly reinforced by his wardrobe consisting only of pajama tops) but the humor of his protest resembles something real and tragic. We inevitably build routines in our lives, ones that in all likelihood, we will have to break. The reality of this break is a harsh one as it suggests something deeply uncomfortable. When I moved out of my apartment following graduation, I couldn’t help but cry. It seems weird in retrospect. Sure, I have plenty of wonderful memories and even as I write this, I think fondly of  living there. On the other hand, I knew such an existence was temporary. This knowledge is the very thing that Otis, as well as Max, Grover, and Skippy want to delay. They successfully construct a reality that isn’t productive or helpful, but does resemble the routine they followed for years. It doesn’t feel particularly good, either but it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as trying to break out from the mold.


One might see the protagonists as helpless, simply because they won’t help themselves. Grover has an opportunity for an internship with the New Yorker, he’s interested, but not ecstatic. Nothing materializes out of this opportunity. Max doesn’t show any interest in pursuing a profession and gets involved with a seventeen year old girl. Skippy tries to go back to school, but the result is him just badgering Miami, his girlfriend losing patience for him and the entire group. They can’t help themselves because helping yourself is something that no one has constructed an idea about. Nobody knows what moving on looks like so nobody tries to move on. Chet, the character whose been in college longer than anyone, suggests the way to make God laugh is to have a plan. His skepticism towards having a life plan is not unfounded, but it might be the sort of thing that motivates Grover and company. They, like myself, don’t bother with a plan because they are already skeptical of it ever being successful. There’s not some sage wisdom that the film reveals in this moment, because Grover did have a plan and it didn’t work so he gave up on it. The alternative suggested is not exactly positive. The moment is a red herring, a glimpse into Chet’s own aimless but not the filmmaker trying to communicate his ideas through one character. When discussing your own life, you can’t really speak in such absolutes.


The film ends with a flashback. One of Grover telling Jane how he wished they were an older couple so they could openly embrace without the influence of modern dating etiquette. The scene seems disconnected from the rest of the film’s extensive portrait of post-grad lethargy. It all works together, in my opinion. More importantly, I find this moment in communication with the rest of Baumbach’s oeuvre. Frances Ha includes a similar scene in which Frances drunkenly describes a singular moment she seeks in a relationshipThe Squid and the Whale has Laura Linney wistfully explaining to Jesse Eisenberg the moment they shared involving the titular diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. I’m not sure if I can connect all three of these sequences together in a cohesive way. There are, however, united by some yearning. The suggestion that we actually could construct an ideal moment, be it one in the future or one from the past. We’re not utterly hopeless because we can see a beautiful future, but it’s just really difficult to figure out how to get there in the first place.