Aimless, self-referential and obsessed with pop culture minutia: Has a cohesive depiction of young Americans been so pervasive since hippies passed joints in the pages of Look magazine? “Kicking and Screaming,” the confident debut of 25-year-old filmmaker Noah Baumbach, is as inevitable as it is mildly amusing and occasionally exasperating — a self-analysis of the self-analysis of a self-analytical generation. Trimark’s marketers will be assisted by critics impressed with Baumbach’s precocious style and the young cast’s attractiveness, but they’ll have to work to move this modest coming-of-age story to came-of-age audiences.
“Kicking and Screaming” traces the first post-college year of Grover (Josh Hamilton) and his preppy group of friends as they huddle in limbo on the periphery of campus life. Broken-hearted over his abandonment by college sweetheart Jane (Olivia d’Abo), Grover treads water with the cranky Max (Chris Eigeman), flaky Otis (Carlos Jacott) and perennial adolescent Skippy (Jason Wiles).
Paralyzed by the new-found freedom, the gang does little more than worry about the future, obsess over the past, trade witticisms and grow increasingly irritable as the ties that once bound now seem artificial and strained.
Film wears its influences on its tweed sleeves: Whit Stillman’s acerbic elitism is present in more than the casting of Stillman regular Eigeman, while dialogue set in a video store where one character works could have been lifted verbatim from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.”
And with its endless stream of cultural references, from Kafka to Josie and the Pussycats, Baumbach’s dialogue often sounds like a “Friends” script as written by a class of overly earnest English majors. First line of dialogue:”Who would you rather be stranded on a desert island with, MacNeil or Lehrer?”
Granted, Baumbach has set himself a difficult goal: depicting dilemmas that are essentially internal. And he succeeds, on occasion, in surprising ways. The golden-hued flashbacks tracing the development of Grover’s love affair with Jane are sweet and believable, with a minimum of the overly written conversation that mars much of the film (and strips their breakup scene of any honest emotion).
And even though the Eigeman character is perhaps the worst offender of this obviously scripted way of speaking, the character’s nastiness can be quite amusing.
The film might rail against the affectations of overly sophisticated youth, yet the unintentional displays of cinematic affectation are everywhere, from Jane’s pointless and annoying removal of her dental retainer during conversation to the falseness of having these media-savvy kids watch a detergent commercial “to see if the stain comes out.”
The director is more successful in setting an easy, low-key tone, with nicely framed shots and subtle camera movements downplaying the script’s pretensions. Dan Whifler’s production design is on target in its depiction of campus (and off-campus) living, yet the characters’ costumes — these guys wear sport coats to the grocery — seem more intent on making some vague point about being old before one’s time than on reflecting the natural world.
Baumbach draws good performances from his cast, especially Hamilton as the Everygrad Grover. Eigeman’s done his curmudgeon shtick before — his character here is virtually identical to his roles in Stillman’s “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona”– but at least he does it well. Same can be said for Eric Stoltz’s turn in a lesser role as a 28-year-old who refuses to leave the safe confines of student life. In a small part, Elliott Gould does his likable best despite his unconvincing casting as Hamilton’s earnest father.
Tech credits, like Baumbach’s directorial style, are quite polished for a modestly budgeted debut. Look for this filmmaker to graduate to better things.