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‘Kicking and Screaming’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1995

In "Kicking and Screaming," Noah Baumbach's hilariously insightful comedy about a group of college graduates preparing to enter the "real world," the characters may be the future leaders of America, but they aren't exactly rushing out to seize the day. Their heads are jammed with all sorts of knowledge, but instead of applying it usefully, they idle away their days, playing games, testing each other's acumen with periodic challenges. "Name five movies with monkeys in the title." Or, should that prove too easy, "Name five empiricist philosophers."

Set in an unnamed college town somewhere in the Northeast, the movie centers on four friends—Grover (Josh Hamilton), Max (Chris Eigeman), Otis (Carlos Jacott) and Skippy (Jason Wiles). Grover—who is based partly on Baumbach himself—is the unofficial leader of this bratty, alienated pack, and the main focus of the movie, but that doesn't mean he has a clue as to what to do with his life.

A nice chunk of the film is devoted to Grover and his relationship with Jane (Olivia D'Abo), a quick-witted writing student with whom he has fallen in love. At the party just after graduation, though, Jane tells him she is leaving to study abroad in Prague. "Really," he replies. "And just how would that work with us living in Brooklyn?"

The news doesn't send Grover into a funk; he's already there. All of these guys are, in fact. Instead of enjoying their youth, these perplexed friends seem eager to have life's adventures behind them—to be old even before they've lived. Most days, Max sits around the house doing crossword puzzles while Otis (whom Jacott turns into a hilarious comic screw-up) attempts, unsuccessfully, to leave town for graduate school.

Baumbach approaches his topic of generational angst as a modern coming-of-age story, and in both style and spirit he is closer to Rohmer and Truffaut than the creators of most recent "twentysomething" films. As a writer, Baumbach loves smart, glib talk, and he has a sharp ear for fast-paced, overlapping dialogue; as a director, though, he prefers long takes that allow his characters to work out their feelings. At the same time, the movie barrels through its story with the brisk efficiency of a '30s screwball comedy.

Though the characters chatter endlessly, they seem to use conversation almost as a tactic for avoiding the real issues confronting them. In a flashback of their first meeting, the more serious Jane criticizes one of Grover's stories because of his characters' absorption in such trivial issues as the sexiest model in the Victoria's Secret catalogue. Grover, of course, doesn't see it that way. ("There were some really fantastic models in this issue.") Jane, on the other hand, sees the expenditure of all that brainpower on such nonsense as a depressing waste.

As a rule, the women in the film are more mature, more directed, than their male counterparts. (Parker Posey is particularly strong in a small role.) Most of the men are like Jacott's Otis, a fully grown giant of a man who thinks of himself as shrunken and scared. ("I'm too small to do what the bigger boys can do," he says.) As Jane, D'Abo is something of a revelation. A former "Bond girl," D'Abo gives her character an anxious, high-strung appeal; she's both neurasthenic and strong. (I loved the way she uses Jane's retainer, popping it in and out for dramatic emphasis.) As Grover, Hamilton is more recessive, but he also shows a nice, light touch for comedy, particularly in scenes like the one in which he forbids his hapless father (a sublimely depressed Elliot Gould) to reveal the more intimate details of his sex life.

Such scenes underline the shifting relationships between parents and children as vividly as any in recent memory. In general, Baumbach's eye for generational detail is impeccable—he knows what's on these kids' minds, and has found a language to express it. He's savvy enough to know, for example, that Prague has become a cliche. He's also aware that growing up is a matter of tiny steps. By the end of the picture, the characters haven't progressed much, but they do seem to have gotten started. And that, at least, is something.

Kicking and Screaming is rated R.

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