Thursday, December 12, 2019

Kicking and Screaming

Director Noah Baumbach

KICKING AND SCREAMING                               A-                   
USA  (96 mi)  1995  d:  Noah Baumbach   

Max: I’m too nostalgic. I’ll admit it.
Skippy: We graduated four months ago. What can you possibly be nostalgic for?
Max: I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory… and I didn’t have a good time.

All of Baumbach’s films seem to evoke “white privilege,” though perhaps inadvertently, as this is a hilariously written comedy about a group of white college graduates who refuse to leave the nest, who have grown so comfortable with the protected circumstances of life around the college campus that leaving to get on with their lives seems so uninviting and a waste of time, like they’ll never have it so good, as if these are the best years of their lives.  In the manner of Hal Hartley and others, the film is effused with smart aleck comments and highly observant situation comedy, defined by a mad pace of dialogue that recalls an era of screwball comedy, where you wonder if anybody actually speaks this way, as the cleverness is off the charts.  Influenced by Richard Linklater’s SLACKER (1990) or Dazed and Confused (1993), this ensemble work provides the essence of indie filmmaking, relying upon comic wit and laser-like writing skills, with Baumbach (who worked as an intern for The New Yorker) passing the baton from Generation X to young Millennials, one of the better films to suggest the attainment of a college education leads you absolutely nowhere.  Thrust into a cement mixer of a college liberal arts education, what do all these kids have in common?  No ambition whatsoever, and no clue what they want to do with their lives.  While not exactly slackers, what’s missing is even a hint of practicality, as these lives have never been challenged by dire circumstances, social unrest, or financial need, as everything’s pretty much been handed to them their entire lives, where they’ve never had to choose their own pathways, as it was already chosen for them since kindergarten or even pre-school.  Following only what was expected of them, it lead here, to this place and this moment, overly reluctant to chart their own course and start taking responsibility for their own decisions.  So rather than make that momentous choice, these kids just hang around biding their time, stuck in a state of inertia, doing what college kids have always done, even though they’ve stopped going to classes or taking exams, as they’re no longer college kids.  One of the beauties of the film is the built-in hierarchy, where there is a school ranking system for lowly freshmen and sophomores, defined by their own naïveté, while seniors believe they’ve earned their place at the top of the food chain, becoming sharks in the water, preying on younger more unsuspecting students, basically having their way simply because they can.  Having worked so hard to get into that advantageous position, they don’t want to leave it, as they reap all the benefits without having to do a stitch of work.  So as the title suggests, they’re not easily giving it up, as it’s come to define who they are, even if they’re having trouble figuring out just exactly what that is.  

At the heart of the picture is Grover (Josh Hamilton), an English literature major with a flair for writing (a stand-in for the writer/director), who thinks he’s got it all going until challenged one day in class by another girl, Jane (Olivia D’Abo, a revelation), who succinctly minimizes his efforts as trivial and depressing, chopping him down to size in the process, so, of course, he falls madly in love.  While they are the centerpiece, their story is told backwards in time while the rest of the film progresses, where unlike Grover, she actually asserts herself after graduation and is off to study in Prague on a fellowship.  Clearly hurt and brokenhearted by her decision, Grover sits around and frets about it, refusing to even listen to messages left on the answering machine, always shutting it off before she has a chance to say what’s on her mind.  In this way, he’s the authority on lost love, though flashbacks reoccur in black and white throughout the picture, leading to a spectacular finale that is pitch perfect and utterly amazing, catching that first spark of love.  It’s truly inspired, where the rest of the film isn’t nearly so heartfelt and poignant, content to explore the comic absurdity in their lives.  While much of this was shot at Occidental College in Los Angeles, it has the close-knit feel of a preppy East coast university set in a small town, much like Poughkeepsie, New York, home of Vassar College, Baumbach’s alma mater.  Using chapter headings that actually follow a typical school year, this post-college year is spent on the periphery of college life, still meeting at the same hang-outs and drinking holes, we’re introduced to Grover’s partners in crime, including Max (Chris Eigeman), who worries about his future, ducking from the loathsome “Cookie Man” at the door, and spends nearly all his time doing crossword puzzles and banging underclass girls like Cara Buono as Kate, while Otis (Carlos Jacott) couldn’t be more uncomfortable in his own skin, thinking he’s too small for his size, heading off to graduate school in Milwaukee only to return within a week or so, as indecisive as ever, and ends up working at a video store, or Skippy (Jason Wiles), who audits classes he doesn’t even attend, the kid they all like to pick on, contributing to his dire outlook.  While it’s mostly a boy’s club, a network of similar, like-minded guys who all sound the same, playing the same word games and trivia contests, a test of their dumbfounding awareness of cultural references, mixed in somewhere is the effervescent presence of Parker Posey as Miami, as funny and upbeat as ever, sleeping around with most of the guys.  The odd man out is Eric Stoltz as Chet, a professional student, the local bartender who’s been around for a dozen graduations, walking around like he owns the place, complete with guru philosophical acumen and literary quotation skills that make him a fixture anywhere, as he’s probably the most studious and well-read among them.  Early in the film he’s actually mistaken for an “adult.” 

Delightfully entertaining, creating an insular environment of easy laughs about aimlessly going nowhere, Grover has long telephone conversations with his father (Elliot Gould) that inevitably involve the Knicks, later seen arriving on campus to announce the messy breakup of his marriage to his mother, where the graphic details of his challenged new sex life become much too disturbing for Grover to hear.  Yet this typifies the all-too changing world around them, where they have no safety net to fall back upon (though his father does offer a Greenwich Village apartment in the city that he’ll eventually have to sell as part of the divorce, but Grover can’t make up his mind), where they’re expected to plunge into the unexpected with renewed vigor, each graduating class offering something new, yet Grover continually vacillates over his future, derailed by Jane’s long-distance absence, thinking they could have built a future together somewhere in Brooklyn, “And not just Brooklyn, A-list Brooklyn.  Park Slope.  Division 2 Manhattan.”  None of that was enough to lure Jane, who’s truly out on her own with little support.  Instead Grover develops a sarcastic sneer for all things Prague.  “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.  Well, I haven’t been-to-Prague been to Prague, but I know that thing, I know that stop-shaving-your-armpits, read-The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, fall-in-love-with-a-sculptor, now-I-realize-how-bad-American-coffee-is thing.”  But that snarling contempt is tempered by romantic flashback scenes of their initial meetings, with Jane endearingly taking out her retainer for dramatic effect, where it’s clear they’re happy, at least for the moment. However, paralyzed by this oncoming rush of freedom, the gang does little more than worry about the future, obsess over the past, and trade barbs and witticisms that show increasing signs of irritability, as what once held them all together seems ever more strained and empty.  Perhaps caught off-guard by his own developing detachment, Grover senses a moment, triggered by a small airport that advertises connections to international flights.  At first walking away, paying it no mind, he returns, invigorated by his newfound spontaneity, where he launches into one of the best monologues in recent memory, pouring his heart out for a ticket to Prague to the airline ticket agent (Jessica Hecht, the lesbian lover from Friends, who is marvelous), who tells him flights are all filled up, which only emboldens him to offer a surge of renewed stream-of-conscious romanticism that simply streams out of his mouth, gushing uncontrollably, where it all leads to a miraculous heart-stopping crescendo of hope that simply can’t be denied, where the agent catches a whiff of his wavelength, offering him a lifeline, as love is literally rising into the air, yet like a house of cards, the inevitable happens, a pause like no other, when the realization hits that he hasn’t exactly thought this through.  It’s an incredible sequence, followed by an even more inspired moment, creating a killer ending, so precise, making a major breakthrough onto the American indie landscape, showing such effortless grace and poetic subtlety, bringing this filmmaker and his first fledgling work into prominence.

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