[13 May 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I was born a baby, a blank slate,” says Phil (Will Ferrell) while you gaze on the widescreen image of a perfectly pink infant’s face. Look how cute. Look how unsullied. Look how naïve. There he was, he remembers, “thinking I was in control of my own destiny.” And then he met his father. And his charming fantasy of self-determination was finished.
This father, an ornery sort named Buck (Robert Duvall), isn’t precisely the macho hotshot he imagines himself. He makes raucous tv commercials prancing around his sporting goods store in various uniforms—baseball, football, soccer—buoyed and self-created by the tagline, “He’s got balls!” And he bullies his son, poor Phil, pictured during his “youth” trying to run hurdles, long-jump, and throw a javelin, all stunts ending in disaster. Except when his javelin almost hits the girl of his dreams, Barbara (Kate Walsh), who not only forgives this startling faux pas but also agrees to marry him.
All this back-story goes to explaining Phil’s cringing rage against his dad, cranked up several notches when he learns that Buck is also getting married, and when it comes time to have a child, also has a child - which means that Phil has a little half-brother who is the age of his own son. When the kids are 10 years old, both Phil’s Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) and Buck’s little Bucky (Josh Hutcherson) go out for little league soccer, which only exacerbates the tension and the flummoxy manchild routine that by now has become so familiar in Will Ferrell movies.
Kicking & Screaming offers yet another variation on the theme rehearsed in Elf, Anchorman and Old School. Ferrellman doesn’t so much adjust to the adult world around him as he makes it bend to his stubborn, outrageous will. That he is so fearless in his demands and so full-on in his bodily dedication to his comedy makes Ferrell oddly hilarious. But you can’t help but wonder at your own laughter as it escapes. When Phil takes on coaching the Tigers, a underdog little league soccer team in the same league as the champion Gladiators coached by Buck and starring Bucky, you get the idea: father and son will come to competitive blows by film’s end, and one or both will learn to be a better son or father. Meantime, poor Sam—so trusting, so eager to please—bears the brunt of the seeming adults’ underhanded emotional warfare.
While Barbara and Buck’s wife Janice (Musetta Vander) make feeble noises about containing their men’s obsessive obnoxiousness, but they can only watch it escalate. Outraged that his father has slighted Sam (“Of all the asinine things my dad has done this must be the most asinine,” he whines to Barbara, at least having the sense to send Sam to his room before he lets loose with his resentment. “I’m a torpedo of anger!”), Phil engages the help of Mike Ditka (playing himself, smoking cigars, and apparently just as glad that he didn’t run for Senator from Illinois). After seeing the Tigers play, Ditka comes up with plan b, that is, brining in a couple of ringers, brilliant little Italian soccer stars Gian Piero (Francesco Liotti) and Massimo (Alessandro Ruggiero), who happen to be the barely-English-speaking nephews of his butcher (who insists the boys keep their priorities straight: soccer is secondary and—repeated like a mantra by the rest of the team—“Meat comes first!”)
With the gruff “encouragement” of Ditka (“I eat quitters for breakfast and I spit out their bones”) and the skilled Italians——on the field, the Tigers win, leading them at last to the championship match with the Gladiators. Save for a couple of weirdoes, say, the lesbians whose adopted son Byong Sun (Elliot Cho) still yearns to score a goal himself, the Tigers parents are thrilled to be able to sheer on the sidelines, even if it means their kids can’t even try to play. The plan for every play in every game: “Give it to the Italians.” At the same time, Phil falls into his own abyss, namely, an addiction to designer coffee, to the point that he carts his own espresso machine to the game and keeps it brewing so he can snarf down that demonic “vessel constrictor” caffeine at any moment. Rattled, distracted, and never satisfied, Phil has turned into his father.
The joke of Phil’s anger—obvious before it starts—gets old quickly. So do the physical gags—kicks to groins, punches to faces, adults abusing kids. At one point Phil kicks Sam in frustration, and the child looks briefly stunned as dad can’t even take the time to acknowledge what he’s done. Wholly dedicated to the competition with Buck, Phil has—wait for it—lost sight of the reason he started coaching I the first place, which was to help Sam play the game for fun. We get it: Ferrell is forever young. So why is he also squeezed into a moral lesson? When he sees that good kid Sam remains generous and eager to love him, Phil finally comes to his senses. (Aww.) The film, however, remains a series of episodes, disconnected and unoriginally obnoxious.