The Criterion Collection is a company that releases some of the best films ever produced, contemporary and classic, for home exhibition on DVD and Blu-Ray. Their mission is dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in editions of the highest technical quality, with supplemental features that enhance the appreciation of the art of film.
This series will focus on why Criterion releases are great and my perception of those traits that make each film great.
First thing’s first – this is not a post about the terribly unfunny Will Ferrell soccer movie. The executives who greenlit it should be fired and everyone else associated with it should be forced into retirement. Let it never be confused with the following.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s get on with it.
Kicking and Screaming is one the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. After watching it, it was clear that writer-director Noah Baumbach was the heir apparent to Whit Stillman, something I gladly welcomed as his films Barcelona and Metropolitan were faves of mine when I first watched Kicking and Screaming. I think the reason this film resonates so well with me is that I was in the exact same position as the characters in the film at the exact same time in their lives. The basic premise of the film centers around four friends – Grover (played by Josh Hamilton), Max (played by Chris Eigeman), Otis (Carlos Jacott) and Skippy (Jason Wiles) – who remain in their college town after graduation trying to figure out what to do with their lives. They feel like they are too old to hang out with the college kids and too young to choose the final path of their lives. We are all fortunate that the Criterion Collection rescued this film from oblivion, anointing it as one of the important contemporary films that they rarely included at the time. This films is now housed in a collection alongside some of the greatest films ever produced, and in my opinion, rightfully so. It is a strong first film by Baumbach and it is one of my all-time favorite films.
And here are five reason why it rules:
Ding! Monkeys, Monkeys, Ted & Alice! (from left to right – Otis, Max, Grover and Skippy)
5) Banter – Realistic dialogue for college age characters is rarely realized. It is frequently too clever for its own good and this is one area that Kicking and Screaming excels. The conversations between the friends are easily imaginable for me because I seem to have had many similar ones with my own friends. When Skippy throws out ideas as to what they should call their group of friends, Cougars or Hawks (“something that won’t sound so stupid, look good on a satin jacket…something tough. Cougars?”), I couldn’t help but to lose it. Just a priceless moment and indicative of the dialogue throughout the film. This is the tip of the iceberg as I believe this film to be as quotable as any film out there. A nod given directly to Noah Baumbach for writing a wonderful, timely film. I wish Hollywood would take more looks at scripts like this one rather than adaptations of the latest teen novel or the 44th sequel in a transforming robot series.
I like a bartender who drinks. Otherwise I feel like I’m being poisoned.
4) Chet the bartender – As told in the series of interviews/documentary included in the extras on this DVD, Noah Baumbach states that he wrote the character of Chet into the film so that Eric Stoltz’s participation could help secure the financing to make it. And even though he was a late addition, Chet actually adds to the chemistry of the film in that he gives us a reminder of the liberal arts/college town mentality and environment that the four friends are occupying and from which they are trying to break free. Chet is a man who has given his life to being a student, 10 years dedicated to his studies. When asked if he is planning on leaving the college town, he answers, “Why would I leave here?” and later on says, “Some people need to have a real career, which is something that I’ve never understood…you know, why someone would want to be a vet or a lawyer or a filmmaker. I’m paraphrasing myself here, but I am a student and that’s what I chose. You might need to choose something else, and that’s…” Chet, as is to be expected, is the sage in the film, dispensing advice even to those who don’t ask for it. “If Plato is a fine red wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini” he tells a nameless townie drinker who could care less about philosophy. How can you not love this character?
Mark it 8, Dude.
3) Inclusion of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Braver, Newer World” on the soundtrack – Most people probably wouldn’t know Jimmie Dale Gilmore‘s name if they heard it, and likely wouldn’t know his music either. However, most would know him as Smokey, the bowling pacifist on which Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) pulls a piece in The Big Lebowski. The song is the perfect accompaniment to the predicament that each of these characters is in, afraid of tackling the braver, newer world that is out there before them. That the song is featured in a flashback makes it all the better because Grover is wooing Jane (Olivia d’Abo), talking about how they wish they were old and retired and reflecting back on a lifetime together, the song is giving them the blueprint to enjoy the now, highlighting the fact they are missing all of the amazing things that are out there to experience. That Grover is afraid to travel to Prague with Jane as she studies writing after graduation makes the appearance of this song all the more powerful. I had never heard this song anywhere before seeing this film, but it stuck with me from the first time I watched it and has been a regular play on mixed CDs and my iPod ever since even though I have a strong distaste for anything music that is remotely country in flavor. That is the power this song has in this film and in the moment it is used. Very crafty of Mr. Baumbach.
Oh my God. Jesus. Look at this, there’s like…food in here.
2) Food in the beer scene – writers take note because this a great character development moment. As Otis is delivered a beer with some type of food floating in it, we see who he really is. Even though his tentativeness is hinted at in the first scene we are introduced to him (“I can’t do the things other big guys can do”), here is where we see Otis’ true colors. The waitress delivers Otis a beer that clearly has a large chunk of something floating in it. Even though he is disgusted by it (“It’s like a piece of chicken wing or a cheese fry. I mean look at this!”) and against the urging of Grover, Otis refuses to return the beer. He says, “I don’t want to bother her, she seems a little distant…I want her to like me. I like it better this way.” Otis is still negotiating his position in the town hierarchy and rather than disrupt the status quo, he is willing to accept this less than acceptable item. This speaks volumes about his character and this plays out handsomely later on in the film. The fact that Otis actually drinks the beer, taking the piece of mystery food into his mouth rather than removing it from the beer prior to drinking it may speak even louder. Otis is the best character in this film, hands down. You can see many of his finest moments here.
Okay, Mr. Book Club!
1) Chris Eigeman – Mr. Eigeman’s spot-on portrayal of the surly Max Belmont is basically a redux of his roles in the aforementioned Whit Stillman films Metropolitan and specifically as Fred Boynton in Barcelona. The essence of Fred is channeled into the Max role and is best shown when reprimanding Otis for his many social indiscretions or chastising Chet for being smug. I could literally watch Eigeman play this same role in a hundred films because he does it so well. As he said in Barcelona after arriving unexpectedly at his cousin’s house and being told that guests, like fish, begin to stink on the third day, he replied, “I think you’ll find that I begin to stink on the first day.” And this carries over to his his role as Max. It’s a wonder that he is friends with any of the others as they really don’t seem to have much in common with Max, who apparently has wealthy parents whereas the rest of the group are either townies or come from less well-to-do families. Grover points out that, “Since graduation, I’m poor, you’re rich. We are no longer equals.” Max doesn’t do anything except crosswords and drink 40s of Colt .45. He too is awash in the aimlessness and apathy that has also gripped the others. So perhaps it’s here that they find common ground, that this affliction knows no boundaries, especially economic ones. Even though this character’s attitude is familiar space to Eigeman, he nonetheless knocks it out of the park and perhaps is this film’s greatest attribute.
Parkey Posey as Miami
While these five aspects of Kicking and Screaming represent what I think is best of this film, I would be remiss not to mention the contributions that both of the lead female characters/actresses add to it. Call them honorable mentions, if you will. Parker Posey, who plays Skippy’s girlfriend Miami, is as good in this as she is in anything. She is the consummate indie actress and it shows in this film. When she and Skippy are talking about her cheating on him and she describes what she doesn’t like about him – WOW. Hard to top.
Olivia D’abo as Jane.
Jane, played by Olivia d’Abo, delivers one of my favorite lines in the entire film about paying people for wasting their time when she says something stupid. I have tried to hold other people accountable in this same way in the years since seeing this.
So I urge any who have not seen this film to go watch it. Now. What are you waiting for? It’s too good to not be seen by any and all. Grab the Criterion DVD and poke around in the extra features. Hell, even the cover is clever. This is as good as it gets, folks.