Funnyman Will Ferrell shoots and scores in “Kicking & Screaming,” an immensely likable, funny comedy that finds a novel approach to that familiar combo of kids and sports. Arriving just ahead of several similar-themed pics — including Par’s “The Bad News Bears” remake and Fox’s “Rebound” — “Kicking” wisely focuses as much on Ferrell’s character of a lower-league soccer coach as on the motley moppets he must whip into shape. Result, like 2003’s “School of Rock,” should entertain parents as much as tykes, though a crowded release schedule will keep numbers in the solid range of Ferrell’s last solo starring vehicle, “Anchorman,” rather than the boffo biz of holiday hit “Elf.”
An irreverent pre-title sequence fills us in on the backstory: Ever since Phil Weston (Will Ferrell) was a kid, life with his father, sporting goods salesman Buck Weston (Robert Duvall), has been one endless series of competitions, both on-field and off. When a college-age Phil announces he’s engaged to his sweetheart (Kate Walsh), Buck announces he’s getting married too. Or, rather, re-married. (“It’s been hard for me since your mom died,” Buck says. Replies Phil, “Mom didn’t die. She divorced you.”) And on the day that Phil’s first-born child, Sam, arrives, lo and behold Buck becomes a father again, giving Phil a stepbrother, Bucky, who (natch) weighs one ounce more than Sam at birth.
Flashing forward to the present day, pic reveals that Phil has evolved into a seemingly mild-mannered, even-keeled vitamin salesman, though the competitive drive instilled by Buck still festers. Sam, meanwhile, has spent most of the season on the bench of his youth soccer team, the Warriors, even though his granddad is the coach.
When Buck trades Sam to the league’s last-place team, the Tigers, Phil volunteers for the vacant job of coach — even though he doesn’t know the first thing about coaching soccer. Help soon arrives in the form of Buck’s longtime neighbor and arch-nemesis, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka (playing himself), who wants to stick it to Buck almost as much as Phil does.
As “Kicking & Screaming” moves down the field toward the big-game, Phil-vs.-Buck finale, it pulls some unexpected plays from its playbook. The movie is less about endless training montages and inspirational speechifying than about the way in which Phil starts to become frighteningly Buck-like, encouraging the boys to play dirty and, ultimately, benching Sam in favor of the team’s star Italian brothers (Francesco Liotti and Alessandro Ruggiero).
Along the way, screenwriters Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick (“The Santa Clause”) come up with a series of amusing comic diversions, from Phil’s development of a compulsive coffee addiction to an intense backyard tetherball game between Phil and Buck. Time and again, pic returns to its central idea of the many things we do in an effort to please our parents.
“Kicking & Screaming” was directed by Jesse (son of Bob) Dylan, whose previous pic, “American Wedding,” was easily the best and funniest in the “American Pie” trilogy. And while this film may lack any one set-piece to put on par with “Wedding’s” sidesplitting French maid sequence, it does offer further proof of Dylan as a talented young voice in American screen comedy, with a sharp sense of timing and an assured use of the widescreen frame. (Pic reunites him with “American Wedding” d.p. Lloyd Ahern.)
Dylan’s been given an enormous gift in Ferrell, who’s turning out to be one of the great movie clowns of his generation, and he uses him smartly — he knows when to keep Ferrell on his comic leash and when to let him burst forth into arias of pent-up self-loathing. In a rare comic turn, Duvall has a grand, scenery-chewing old time as this suburban Col. Kilgore. But it’s Iron Mike who steals every scene he’s in, sending up his tough-as-nails persona with deadpan elegance.
Tech credits are professional, lending pic the bright look and speedy feel of most contempo Hollywood comedies. As in “American Wedding,” the soundtrack offers a well-chosen amalgamation of pop tunes past and present, from Louis Prima singing “Zuma Zuma Baca La” to sports-movie send-ups of “Eye of the Tiger” and the theme from “Chariots of Fire.”