[25 August 2006]
What I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.
—Max (Chris Eigeman)
I’m postponing months of emotional paralysis.
—Jane (Olivia d’Abo)
The mid-1990s brought a short but notable stack of films about 20-somethings who couldn’t figure out what they wanted to do with their lives. Reality Bites, Bodies, Rest and Motion, and Sleep with Me exemplified the trend: overeducated and underemployed characters (usually including one played by Eric Stoltz) wrapped their photogenic smarty-pants selves in layers of circuitous and pop-culture-riddled dialogue in order to avoid growing up.
Hermetic and chatty, this boomlet of post-Slacker cinema captured a specific time and place, as well as a fleeting sense of hipness. Sleep With Me is remembered, if at all, for Quentin Tarantino’s riff on Top Gun, while Reality Bites is a so-bad-it’s-good curiosity from a bygone era. The exception is 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, at once entirely of its moment and timeless.
Behind all the banter and postgraduate trauma, Kicking and Screaming is a love story, only it’s a fairly sour one that unfolds in reverse. Opening at a graduation night party, blocked writer Grover (Josh Hamilton) finds out his girlfriend Jane (Olivia d’Abo) is leaving for a fellowship in Prague. Their conversation has a rat-a-tat quality to it. Grover, instead of saying he’ll wait for her or will come along to Prague, tries to talk her into moving to Brooklyn with him: “And not just Brooklyn, A-list Brooklyn. Park Slope. Division 2 Manhattan.”
Grover is hyper-literate and sarcastic. “I haven’t been to Prague, been to Prague,” he says, “But I know that thing, that, ‘Stop shaving your armpits, read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, fall in love with a sculptor, now I realize how bad American coffee is’ thing.” He is afraid of change, pure and simple. He and his friends sit around a table, playing endless trivia games. His “worst post-graduate scenario” contribution: “Jane dumps me to move to Prague. I spend the rest of my life with you idiots.” Flashbacks show how he comes to this point, the reverse plot showing Grover’s self-destructiveness, the almost systematic way in which he sabotages what appears to be his only meaningful relationship.
The flashbacks also fracture the storyline, an idea Baumbach ascribes to his improv comedy background. The subject comes up during interviews he conducts with Eigeman, Hamilton, and Carlos Jacott, the Criterion Edition’s most substantive extra. As he tells it, Baumbach and his friends (including Jacott, who ended up starring as Otis in the film) originally planned, somewhat naively, to return to their alma mater, Vassar, to shoot the film, then titled “Fifth Year.” This project was so “indie” that when Trimar wanted to attach Stoltz, everyone originally involved treated him as Hollywood royalty.
Given that the film was made up of comic vignettes and dialogue scenes, it wasn’t that hard for Baumbach to create a character for Stoltz, writing the role of Chet in a weekend. Knowing this, it’s remarkable how necessary Chet seems now, his Zen-like pose as eternal philosophy student (“If Plato is a fine red wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini”) while working a part-time bartender, serving as a warning to Grover: this could be you if you don’t watch out.
Conducted in a bar, the interviews are easy and warm, reflecting the fact that Baumbach and the major cast members have remained friends to this day. It doesn’t hurt that Baumbach is a surprisingly engaging and wry comic presence, and the actors generous and affable. They speak not only about the process of making the film, but also about their lives since. Eigeman says people still come up to him in a restaurant and say nothing but instead—in homage to a scene in which his spectacularly lazy character leaves a warning note on a pile of broken glass rather than cleaning it up—give him a note that reads “broken glass.”
Given such a dedicated fan base, Criterion might have gone goofy with the packaging. Fortunately, this potential extends only to covering the case cover with quotes (“I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday,” and so on), with most features focused on the director and his work. These include a longer interview with him and a short film he made with a couple of Kicking stars five years later. None of the deleted scenes is a great loss to the final product; one makes Grover seem less sympathetic and another establishes that Jane once dated Chet (a plot point Baumbach admits he forgot).
Almost as important, the new high-def digital transfer looks fantastic. For the 11 years that it took Kicking and Screaming to get from theaters to DVD, it was viewable only via a lousy VHS transfer. Now, cleaned up and free from pan-and-scan butchery that threw Baumbach’s framing off completely, the film looks quite smart and visually accomplished, less obviously made on a budget.
The Kicking Criterion Edition shows that Baumbach’s Squid and the Whale was not as big a leap forward as some may have thought. Even on his first film, Baumbach shows himself to be a sharp writer, with a knack for piercing observation and sarcastic humor.