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Kicking & Screaming (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 13 May 2005
Will Ferrell looks like he’s lining up for a better movie career than most graduates of the Saturday Night Live training school. Many of those from the later seasons of the show who transferred to movies were best known for a few very specific characters on SNL; Ferrell was more of a generalist, which is serving him very well so far. “Kicking & Screaming” isn’t a great comedy—it was never intended to be—but it’s a lot of fun in an easy-going way. You won’t remember it very long after seeing it, but it’s fun while it lasts.

Ferrell’s Phil Weston has spent a lifetime never measuring up—at least in athletic activities—to the tough standards set by his highly competitive father Buck (Robert Duvall). Buck stomps all over his son, and is always ready with a snide wisecrack about Phil’s shortcomings.

After Buck says he hasn’t been the same since Phil’s mother died, Phil wearily reminds his father that she’s not dead—she simply divorced him. Buck gets married again and both men have sons born on the same day—but, as Buck points out, his son Bucky is a little bigger than Phil’s son Sam.

Years later, Phil is doing pretty well with his vitamin business while his father is a sporting goods store tycoon (“I got balls”), and they’re still competing; although Phil’s heart really isn’t in it, he tends to hyperventilate when competition comes up. Buck coaches a kids’ soccer team, the Gladiators, and while Bucky (Josh Hutcherson) is the star of the team, trades his own grandson Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) to the worst team in the local league, the Tigers.

The Tigers’ coach has disappeared, so Phil reluctantly takes over the task himself, only to be confronted by a batch of hapless, discouraged kids. To whip them into shape, Phil asks the help of Mike Ditka (Mike Ditka), his father’s next-door-neighbor. Former football star/coach Ditka hates Buck—the feeling is mutual—so he’s only too happy to pitch in.

From here on, you can probably write the story yourself.

On the other hand, it’s not really “The Bad News Bears” revisited (THAT comes along later this summer), because the focus this time around isn’t on the team, but on the coach. Phil hasn’t exactly been a local dynamo; the ref is his own neighbor—who finds him vaguely recognizable, but can’t pinpoint where he’s seen him before. Phil somehow goes from a coffee teetotaler to a coffee fan to a caffeine junky; at one time we see him sucking on the hose of an espresso machine he’s set up next to the field. This is extraneous, has nothing to do with the main story—but it’s very funny.
So is the means Phil discovers to make the Tigers a winning team. The local deli owner is very Italian and has a couple of young nephews from Italy working with him to learn the deli business. The kids, Gian Piero (Francesco Liotti) and Massimo (Alessandro Ruggiero) are the right age, 12 or so, but can’t speak English. However, they’re soccer-playing dynamos with flashing feet and heads that control balls as though they were hands. Phil’s coaching strategy boils down to “give the ball to the Italians.” This works fine in terms of winning games, but Phil gradually forgets that his initial impetus was for his team, particularly his son Sam, to have fun—forget about the scores. Yes, Phil is slowly but surely turning into Buck.

Ferrell plays the character, not the jokes, and makes the film highly watchable. This is one of three major movies this year for Ferrell; he was in Woody Allen’s last, and very good, too. He’s very good here, so I presume he’ll be just fine in the large-scale movie version of “Bewitched” coming along in a few weeks. He has a kind of relaxed grace on screen, clearly a nice guy—but a nice guy with problems. Of course, he can also play a major jerk with only a few traces of nice guy, as in “Anchorman.” He’s versatile, and he’s reliable. He’s going to be around for years.

He’s great at little fits—anger, excitement, pain, whatever—and at visibly losing all control with the gentler side of his nature. To help his band of little boys bond, he has them sleep out in his back yard, including baying at the moon. He unwisely makes a bet with his father—but your guess is as good as mine as to what the bet is. It seems at first that all that’s necessary is for the Tigers to get into the playoffs, but at the end it’s changed to their WINNING the last big game. Oh well, nobody’s keeping score.   

If you are, the director, Jesse Dylan, is the son of Bob. And I imagine Jesse is hoping someday to read a review of one of his movies (“American Wedding” was another) that DOESN’T mention who his father is. But he clearly doesn’t have his father’s detached-but-committed-observer approach to his craft/art; Jesse’s a Hollywood kind of guy. His movies are well-observed and honest—this one has the least stereotyped of lesbian companions I’ve ever encountered in a mainstream movie, and they’re not even the point—but they’re clearly commercial product made for the mass market. They’re good product, but they’re not—yet, anyway—attempts at true art. And that’s fine; a movie like this would be deflated a bit if it were more serious.

This is the usually phenomenally busy Robert Duvall’s first movie in a couple of years and his second inning as a soccer coach; the first was “A Shot At Glory” (2000), which though pretty good got little theatrical play. Here, he’s like a comic version of one of his signature roles, “The Great Santini” (1979), the father who has to be larger than his sons. One weakness to the script by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick is that Buck never has the epiphany that Phil does. There’s no sense that he understands that as a father, he has lessons to learn.

The script is also weak regarding the epiphany that Phil does have: it’s over way too quickly. I would have preferred to see a little more development; this is, of course, the classic tale of The Man Who Learns Better, but in most iterations of that concept, the learning better takes a bit longer than two minutes, which is about what it takes here.

Still, it’s a good-hearted movie with decent acting from all concerned; Ferrell and Duvall are the leads, but Kate Walsh as Ferrell’s understanding wife is pleasing, and Dylan McLaughlin, as his son, is exceptionally good. Many of the supporting characters get in one or two good scenes.

It’s shot on cheerful, grassy soccer fields in unrecognizable locations; it’s a relaxed and relaxing outing about not a soccer mom, but a soccer dad. And Ferrell carves another notch in the handle of his career.

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