By Tony Schwabb
Noah Baumbach has made many movies about aimless intellectuals, but none have been as aimless as the ones in Kicking and Screaming, his first film.
It is about four friends who have just graduated college. Grover is heartbroken when his girlfriend Jane abandons their plans to move to Brooklyn together. Max does not know what to do after graduating with a degree in philosophy. Skippy has trouble with his girlfriend Miami. Otis backs out of going to grad school. For the next six months they hang around campus, drink and find ways to insult each other.
Few movies have had so many smart observations about laziness. The quotes are endless. “What I used to able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.” “I found myself writing ‘wake up’ and ‘go to bed’ in my day planner as if they are two different events.” “Your attention span is, like, one-quarter of a music video.” The writing is as good as in any Baumbach film, but there is a desperation to it. You feel that the characters are coming up with all these lines because that is all they have left to devote their energy to.
The man with the most great lines is Max, played by the great Chris Eigeman. Eigeman has made a career out of playing smug, clever characters in many movies by Baumbach and Whit Stillman, as well as in TV shows like Gilmore Girls and Malcolm in the Middle. Here, robbed of the success most of his characters have, he gets angry and bitter. We can see how much worse he makes things for his already-struggling friends.
The movie would be very good if it were nothing but great lines, but it gets its beauty from the relationship between Grover and Jane. There are five flashbacks to their relationship. Grover and Jane meet in a writing class and bond over their ambition. In these scenes we see the irony typical of the movie stripped aways as the two realize that they have a real connection. In one scene they dance at a bar to country music that they both feel the need to make fun of. We see though, that they are very touched by it. They respond to it despite themselves.
The movie is exceptionally well directed, which is rare for something so dialogue-driven. The opening is a long tracking shot of Grover walking through a graduation party to Cecilia Anne by The Pixies. Heart of Glass by Blondie is used memorably in another party scene.
The movie is short on dated 90s references, but the ones that there are make the movie dated in a likable way. It is fun to hear Park Slope called “Division 2 Manhattan” as it was becoming gentrified. It sad to hear Grover talk with his dad about the Knicks, both of them hoping that they will find a way to get past Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Tony Schwabb is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org