Truthfulness doesn’t preclude unpleasantness, a point ably established by the films of Noah Baumbach, which reap dividends both engaging and grating from their upfront autobiographical authenticity. Beginning with his debut Kicking and Screaming and continuing throughout the uneven Mr. Jealousy and last year’s superb The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach has used his work to tackle the highly personal doubts, fears, and disappointments with which he’s currently struggling. Certainly, the director’s first feature-length effort, shot when he was only 25, feels torn from recently concluded experiences, charting the aimlessness and ennui of four insufferable, maturation-adverse college grads with a relaxed realism and sharp ear for the sarcasm and pop culture-infused dialogue that came to define many mid-1990s breakout indies (Clerks, Reality Bites, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and Barcelona).
As in his later, equally literate output, Baumbach’s preoccupation is with the frustrations of those whose higher education affords them no greater insight into themselves or the larger world, a situation that his characters respond to in generally ill-advised ways, their discussions’ intermingling of the erudite (Kant, Keats) and the insignificant (Josie and the Pussycats, Friday the 13th) reflecting their central conflict between living up to the lofty expectations of their (upper-middle) class position and shunning such obligations in favor of wallowing in minor day-to-day and societal minutiae. Whereas Kevin Smith’s convenience store slackers talk about such TV and movie trivia because it’s the primary thing—nay, the only thing—they truly care about, Baumbach’s protagonists are too smart not to realize the avoidance games they’re playing, their self-analytical awareness making them more pitiful and, supposedly, more charmingly pathetic. Kicking and Screaming’s twentysomethings sidestep confrontation whenever possible: the guys cowardly lying on the floor to avoid a door-to-door cookie salesman; Max’s (Chris Eigman) advice that his teenage girlfriend should not piss off a redneck gentleman whose bumper sticker indicates that he’d rather be bow hunting; Otis’s (Carlos Jacott) decision to drink a beer with unidentifiable food floating on its surface rather than complain to the waitress.
Noah Baumbach’s gift for crafting characters out of flesh and blood gives the film an associative realism.
Their fundamental aim, however, is to evade the future, an undertaking that goes hand in hand with a desire to canonize the immediate, as articulated by Max’s confession that “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday.” The second of these two objectives also drives Kicking and Screaming itself, though Baumbach’s interests extend past simply immortalizing the laidback vibe of hanging around with friends who should be doing something more productive, moving on to the more fertile ground of depicting the anxiety and anger of failed love, a topic plumbed via Grover’s (Josh Hamilton) anguished attempts to deal with the end of his relationship to Prague-bound ex Jane (Olivia d’Abo). The consciousness of their decision to postpone growing up eventually makes Grover and company infuriatingly obnoxious, their blasé-intellectual appeal nullified by either woe-is-me mopeyness (Grover, Otis) or cooler-than-thou arrogance (Max), the latter of which is compounded by the fact that Eigman—the decade’s poster boy for haughty surliness—remains one of the most singularly self-satisfied screen presences in the medium’s history.
Yet Baumbach’s gift for crafting characters out of flesh and blood (such as Eric Stoltz’s perpetual student Chet) gives the film an associative realism, an I-know-these-people familiarity, which helps partially offset their irksomeness. And though his dialogue is often too pleased with its own cleverness, his script’s marriage of the literate and the lowbrow never comes across as excessively contrived and, such as with a background chat regarding a theoretical fight between Freddy and Jason, seems prophetic about mainstream movie culture’s Tarantino-accelerated devolution into solipsism. More remarkable about Kicking and Screaming, however, is Baumbach’s directorial minimalism, his long, graceful takes and sly employment of rock and country music bestowing the comedic and romantic proceedings with subtle sophistication, as in an emotionally well-calibrated scene between Grover and his maritally separating father (Elliot Gould), as well as a final, hopeful image whose heartfelt poignancy is—after the preceding onslaught of smart-alecky gibber-jabber—all the more powerful for being so unexpected.