By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005
IF WILL FERRELL were a lamp -- and there's enough that's alien about him to think that he might not be entirely human -- his performance in "Kicking & Screaming" would be a 75-watt fixture with faulty wiring. It's not brilliant by any means, but bright enough to light up an overly familiar feel-good story about a coach who whips a team of pre-adolescent soccer misfits into shape, learning something about life -- sniff, sniff -- in the process.
The faulty wiring part? That would account for Ferrell's ability, just when you least expect it, to generate flashes of sudden, almost dangerously incandescent humor, as when his character, a reluctant youth league soccer coach named Phil Weston, apologizes to the parents of his inept young charges for having inadvertently given each athlete a salmonella-tainted finch as a pet. (Don't ask. It's just funny, in a surreal way, as all of the film's best moments are.) Or when Phil is experiencing long-suppressed rage at his father (Robert Duvall), a bullying man who coaches a far more successful squad, and whose decision to bench Phil's son (Dylan McLaughlin) is the impetus for Phil's decision to start coaching a rival team. "I'm a tornado of anger . . . swirling about," Phil seethes, as though the experience of emotion itself were something strange and new to him. As new, in fact, as the coffee that Phil starts drinking obsessively to fuel his new soccer fixation. A novice when it comes to caffeinated beverages, Phil learns -- the hard way -- that they're generally served piping hot.
This is where Ferrell is best: playing characters that are part child, part moron and part brother from another planet. Who doesn't know that coffee is hot? Or that it's inappropriate to belittle a 10-year-old player from an opposing team. Or that pushing a kid to the ground in a fit of pique is wrong.
Wrong, but very, very funny.
Unfortunately, there aren't enough of these lunatic moments in "Kicking & Screaming," a story that, as scripted by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick and directed by Jesse ("American Wedding") Dylan, pretty much follows the rules of every come-from-behind sports saga (Pee Wee League version) from "The Bad News Bears" to "Hard Ball."
Along with Duvall, whose Buck Westin is a gleeful example of bad parenting, and Mike Ditka, playing himself (as Phil's crusty assistant coach), Ferrell is one of the film's few bright lights. It's a shame to hide that subversive beacon under a bushel of dully inspirational sports movie cliches.
KICKING & SCREAMING (PG, 87 minutes) -- Contains crude humor and language. Area theaters.