Kicking and Screaming (1995)

Directed by Noah Baumbach

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Kicking and Screaming feels like it’s in the middle of a bunch of different genres and directions.  In one instance it feels like an American Pie type of comedy, then it becomes more Linklater-esque (similar to 1994’s Before Sunrise).  The film doesn’t simply transition from one type of film into another, but rather it flirts with both directions, balancing them and showing us a portrait of characters who are all incredibly unrestrained and yet incredibly stuck.

That’s what college is, though.  It’s this place where people study highly complex and intellectual (and sometimes dull or airy) subjects, all while they eat macaroni and cheese, don’t do enough laundry and drink a little too much.  College offers a level of freedom that shows people indulging in both their best and worst instincts.  It’s like combining milk and orange juice.

This film follows a group of friends and recent college graduates.  We meet them on the night of their graduation, and they all seem equally miserable, surly, antsy and inebriated.  The story is loosely broken up into chunks, with title cards like “Fall Semester” and “Midterms,” despite the fact that these guys aren’t in school.  They just live college-adjacent, in their familiar old home, wasting time and commiserating.

The main character is Grover (Josh Hamilton), and he turns down a chance to join his girlfriend, Jane, in Prague for the year.  He doesn’t choose anything or anyone over her except for, you could say, his lifestyle.  Grover is jobless and nearly broke.  He and his buddies (Otis, Max and Skippy) live together, drink together and occasionally read and write.  They’re all writers/English majors, and while they appear well-read and demonstrate a knack for reading people (showing some inquisitive thought), they choose to do nothing with those skills.

Grover remembers how he met Jane as the film goes on.  He lives in the past, clearly, and he is unable to call Jane back (who’s been leaving him voicemails from Europe) for no discernible reason.  When his father tells him that his new girlfriend might be able to get Grover an internship at The New Yorker, he is very much open to it, so there’s no objection to real life.  College came easy to Grover, to some extent.  This isn’t a Van Wilder type situation.  Grover isn’t in love with college life, but he’s stuck in it nonetheless.  You can picture him getting stuck in a variety of lifestyles, this just happens to be the one he’s in because it’s the most recent.

So Grover spends most of his time thinking about Jane and what life could be like, but he never thinks practically about the steps he needs to take to make certain changes in his life.  He think about what’s a mile ahead, ignoring the boulders a few feet in front of him.

Max is sarcastic, witty and likely to make fun of everyone in the group.  He has a very rough exterior, but like many similar characters, he’s sensitive and soft on the inside.  He develops a relationship with a young women that seems likely to go nowhere, but it’s not made to seem this way, it’s just how it seems to me.  The girl in question, Kate, is only 16, and while her age isn’t made out to be an issue, it does suggest that Max will continue to live the same way for the near future, drinking, reading and doing crosswords.

Otis delays graduate school when the film begins, but by the end he’s on his way, showing a reluctant step forward.  Skippy ends his arc in the film by rejecting his friends, particularly Max who slept with Skippy’s girlfriend.  While this isn’t by any means a happy moment, it shows a painful but necessary break up that will help Skippy grow up and distance himself from a way of life like the one Max has.

And that leaves us, once more, with Grover.  Now that I’m recapping it, I see that of his three friends, two have made painful choices to move forward, and one, Max, remains stuck behind despite the fact that he’s started a new relationship.  Grover, after accompanying Otis to the airport, makes the decision to fly to Prague to be with Jane.  It’s clear that their relationship folded because of his actions, his attitude and his inability to grow up.  This is apparent from their first conversation and made more clear in the flashbacks we get that show how they first met.  Grover always had things kind of easy in this life, and Jane is the only character who challenges him.  First she critiques his story in a writing class while no one else does, and though this critique seems to startle him, they grow closer and grow up while with each other.  He learns from her (he started going to the bar when she told him she writes there, and he smoked his first cigarette with her).  These moments demonstrate the impact she had on him which is remarkable considering how much he seems to resist anyone else imposing anything onto him.  So near the end, while in the airport, he makes the decision to go after her.  He gives an impassioned speech to the airport employee who can sell him the ticket, and suddenly the film feels like it’s going to be some sort of Freddie Prinze Jr. comedy.  This scene, however, comes right after another scene in which a friend of the group, Chet (Eric Stoltz), made the friends’ frustrations clear.  He said they think they need careers, and this stresses them out because they don’t know what to do or what they want to do.  Chet, who has gone to the same college for nearly a decade, opens up for a moment to show why he’s so comfortable: he’s decided he wants to be a student of life.  He’s okay working at a bar and learning all day.  He learns because he wants to learn while the other guys only learned because that’s what they were supposed to do.  Now they don’t know what to do, and they don’t have to learn so they stopped learning too.  That’s how they’ve ended up doing nothing.  Chet then adds that the only way to make God laugh is to come up with a plan, suggesting that your plan never works.

With that in mind, it didn’t seem to follow that Grover would have this big, climactic speech that has been seen hundreds of times in movies.  The film knows this too, and his speech is all for naught when he realizes he doesn’t have his passport.  The airline employee tries to comfort him, saying that he can always fly to Prague tomorrow.  Grover’s expression says he knows that won’t happen.  This was such an impulsive decision that it was now or never.

The film ends with the moment when Grover and Jane decided to get together, despite making arguments as to why they shouldn’t (the main one being that they are seniors and life will take them different directions anyways).  It’s a very endearing moment, showing two naive but optimistic kids going after something they want and taking risks.  The power of this scene, I think, is that it says all this but since it’s a memory, and with its placement in the film, it’s also saying that Grover won’t take those same risks now.  It both says that he was and can be this type of person, but he’s not right now.

It’s very much a bittersweet ending.  I found myself saying “awwww” out loud when the film ended, because I fell in love with the hypothetical relationship between Grover and Jane, and it’s crazy to me that we never really saw that relationship at its best, only the beginnings and ending of it.

So… when the film ends, I realized how much it had to say.  It wasn’t just a silly comedy about post-graduates who don’t know what to do with their lives.  It was a movie about self-discovery and the ways people grow as well as they ways they refuse to grow.  The ending of the film revealed how much it had to say, and if it had ended with Grover winning Jane back, I think none of the buildup would have mattered.  The film needed the open-ended but not really open-ended finale to show that all this behavior meant something.  It showed us what these characters are all about at this stage of their lives, in terms of fears, desires, neuroses, immaturity, etc.  The end of the film, in other words, forces us to think about what got these characters in these situations and to think about why they’re so stuck.  It’s not an optimistic or pessimistic film.  It simply shows that some people move on and some don’t.  I think Grover does, eventually.

 

 

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