Thursday, May 12, 2005
"Kicking and Screaming" is aimed at kids, but adults will enjoy, too. In fact, much of the film's snarky humor may be lost on most children.
Will Ferrell stars as Phil Weston, an average suburban dad whose over-competitive father has scarred him for life. His feelings of inadequacy stem from a childhood in which he was consistently awful in sports, despite his dad's best efforts. Growing up, Phil was left to warm the bench while his father Buck (Robert Duvall) coached his soccer team to victory. In an early scene that sums up their relationship, Buck tells his son that he'll get some playing time next season, but right now he's trying to win this game.
Fast forward to the present day - Buck is still a locally renowned soccer coach and owner of a sporting goods store. He trades Phil's 10-year old son to the last-place Tigers, and Phil is then coerced into the recently vacant head coach position. Like most sports movies, especially ones featuring kids, this one revolves around an unlikely underdog team who amazes everybody and ends up playing in the championship game. This movie is not, however, about the challenges that a bunch of cute kids overcome to win the big game. Surprisingly, it is a brutally absurd revenge flick that pits a mild-mannered vitamin salesman against his domineering father. Trapped inside the seemingly harmless veneer of a PG-rated kid's movie lies a mischievous little devil of a film that is just "Kicking and Screaming" to get out.
Kicking & Screaming ***
If one can't wait until July for the remake of "The Bad News Bears" starring Billy Bob Thornton, here is the same general idea on the soccer field starring the reliable Will Ferrell. The picture is not a creative enterprise, but the raging, power-intoxicated Ferrell makes it work with his specific brand of goofy physical comedy.
Phil starts his coaching career vowing to teach the kids good values, but the team is so hopeless that he immediately begins looking for shortcuts to victory. Where most movies go straight for the feel-good situations, director Jesse Dylan instead goes for the jugular, rooting the film's nastiest comedy in Phil's pent-up insecurities. Although the film includes the standard scene where all the kids come together and realize that teamwork is the only way to win the big game, the script's masterstroke is that it puts this unavoidable moment off until the last possible second. In fact, for most of the movie, Phil is a hysterical example of what a coach should absolutely not do.
One absurd idea Phil carries out is recruiting Super Bowl coach Mike Ditka, who also happens to be Buck's bitter next-door neighbor and hated rival, as the Tigers assistant coach. Ditka plays a hilarious caricature of his own tough guy persona that matches well with Ferrell's freewheeling, improvisational style. Once Ditka gets the caffeine-free Phil hooked on coffee, the real craziness begins.
Phil's behavior turns from inappropriate to absurd, as he taunts the other teams by screaming "Loser!" in their faces. Another bizarre and extremely funny moment has Ferrell wandering out on the field and actually pushing one of the kids down, face-first onto the ground!
Producer Jimmy Miller got the idea for this movie while watching Ferrell berate a little boy during a sketch on "Saturday Night Live," and credit must go to him for such a simplistic and winning idea. There is something inherently amusing in watching a towering man-child like Ferrell go nuts on these kids. Writers Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick are aware that in order for the joke to work, though, Ferrell must be innocently oblivious of his attitude. Duvall wisely plays it straight, and by concentrating on Buck and Phil's strained father/son relationship, "Kicking and Screaming" sometimes wanders into believable territory.
But let's make no mistake. This is Ferrell's movie. It may never really focus on the typical "kids who overcome impossible odds" motif, but who cares? This movie is very funny. It has more in common with Ferrell's charming "Elf" than with the plot-less "Anchorman." Think of "Kicking and Screaming" as a kind of bridge between the two. It is certainly as anarchic as kids movies are allowed to get. If the film proves anything, it's that if you have an average, formulaic script that needs spicing up, hire Will Ferrell and just go with it.