KICKING AND SCREAMING (1996) **
The film is mainly about four preppyish men who have just graduated from college (school's name and location unspecified) and somehow still hang around. Since the cast also includes and involves a number of current students, it is sometimes confusing to tell who's still taking courses and who is not.
The quartet spend a great deal of time in conversations and bull-sessions. There are even scenes of a course in what I take is Creative Writing, an awful class treated with good irony.
The film's start is auspicious. Then you wait and wait for interesting things to happen or to be said. They do not, unless you think that endless talk that tries to probe into hearts and minds is fascinating --dialogue that focuses on media trivia, pretentious and undigested cultural references, sex or post-sophomoric sophomorisms,what one character later denounces as "Liberal Arts bull...t."
The quartet , now with diploma in hand, are still at the chrysalis stage, at some distance from the change to butterfly. They are still dazed and confused, to borrow the title of Richard ("Slacker") Linklater's film on 1970s high-schoolers. Some of the graduates pose as sophisticates but know that they are not yet ready for life outside the academic cocoon.
The movie tries to be of the mid-1990s, from references to Prague (where one man's girl has gone) to chat about nose rings, but with minor changes it could be any time since 1980. It is divided into chapters whose headings are "Graduation," " Four Months After Graduation," "Fall Semester," "Midterms," "One Month Before Christmas Vacation" and "Three Weeks Later."
Unlike the steady or occasional lightheartedness of its filmic relatives, this movie's tone feels rather downbeat. The mood is often underlined by a kind of morose under-lighting. The man-woman episodes are not exactly uplifting either.
A character who is 22 ("Wow! Old Man River!" exclaims a female undergraduate) and looks older, is gauchely paired off with a girl who is about to become 17, looks younger and, to put it politely, is not exactly refined. When another student, bare-breasted, chain-smoking and gum-chewing, tells her new bedmate that she did it because "it seems like the college thing to do" this is more depressing than droll.
There are some clever or sharp moments and bits and pieces that find "le mot juste" or the right situations. On the whole though, I wonder whether the film is a phony assemblage itself or the true depiction of phony characters. Assuming it is the latter, those people and their talk are not especially stimulating, just as their affairs are without true sentiment --not to mention passion,-- just as replicating life is not in itself necessarily interesting. If this is a portrait of the age, it is a cheerless one.
Credit however Noah Baumbach, the 25-year old writer-director, with a debut that, while low on originality and excitement, is promising and rather skillful. A huge number of first films come from personal experience, a common rite of passage in movies. Here, the director may be too close to subject, too involved in it, therefore hampered in the process of selecting, separating chaff from wheat, maintaining clarity, giving shape and tempo to his creation.
At least one famous director has said that you make only one film in your life. This means, more or less, that an "auteur"'s psychological-social-intellectual nature results in dominant themes and treatments. Some of the best filmmakers have done this, but with variety, variations and quality. I suspect that Noah Baumbach, with more maturity and distancing will --unless he sells out to commercialism -- eventually come up with a more complex picture.