Review by Teddy Blanks
Posted on 17 August 2006
Source Vidmark/Trimark VHS
Reviews: The Squid and the Whale
It was startling, the moment I realized how snugly I fit into this film’s target audience. It was a little earlier than halfway through, after the line, “What I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.” The line is a distillation of a common fear, a veritable tagline, a theme song for the lives of those — young, educated, clever, insecure, directionless, hopelessly white — like me, for whom this movie is made. At the end of my own long and stressful summer, after graduating from college and making the big move to New York, sitting in my tiny Brooklyn apartment and watching Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming on a fuzzy old television screen (the Criterion DVD comes out later this month, but the movie is something of a VHS classic), I felt both the humor and gravity of the line; it resonated like lyrics from a pop song, in a way movie dialogue seldom does.
Kicking’s characters are also recent college grads with shaky love lives, unsure of where they are headed and when they are supposed to start being adults. But unlike me, they have decided to stick around campus for another year, collectively wallowing in their indecision: they drink at the same local bar they did in college, play the same pop-quiz-trivia drinking game, still stake claims on hot new freshmen. It is one of those movies that is less about its characters than their condition. Like Diner, American Graffiti, and The Big Chill before it, the driving force of the picture is nostalgia; Baumbach is less interested in telling a story than in capturing an era.
Here he may have succeeded in making the quintessential upper-middle-class post-college movie, employing a style derived from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, only with a less decidedly snobby bent. Traces of Whit’s wit and polite, stylized dialogue are retained in Kicking and Screaming, but Metropolitan has the quality of an in-joke that Baumbach rejects in favor of a wider appeal; while Stillman’s characters are necessarily part of a dying Manhattan breed, Baumbach’s could be graduates of any liberal arts college (though he probably means Vassar, his own alma mater). This makes the picture considerably easier to relate to, because it expresses a more universally shared experience. A more tangible link is that Baumbach and Stillman are the only directors to repeatedly use Chris Eigeman, an actor whose characters are completely self-involved, but in a way that is so bumbling and oblivious it becomes charming. In Kicking, Eigeman is Max, the most idle and depressed of his post-grad crew, who spends the year doing crossword puzzles, pondering his lack of an occupation, alienating his friends, and snagging the movie’s best lines.
Even if Eigeman ultimately steals the show, Kicking and Screaming is certainly an ensemble piece, and its performances are part of what makes it so enjoyable. Parker Posey is sharp, wide-mouthed, and bitchy as Miami, especially when she, chain-smoking, turns to her boyfriend and asks, “Could we, you know, like, admit some lies we may have told one another?” before scribbling “I Cheated On You” with a Sharpie on a piece of notebook paper and holding it up for him to see. Carlos Jacott is very funny as Otis, the bulky and insecure best friend of Max who, despite having the least confidence of anyone in the group, is the only one with immediate plans to go to graduate school. And of course, Eric Stoltz is Chet, the bartender, who has somehow happily found a way to make a career out of being a college student, an accomplishment the other characters in the movie alternately envy and fear. He pours dime-store nuggets of wisdom with his drinks, like “How do you make God laugh? Make a plan,” and “If Plato is a fine wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini.”
But the structure and heart of the movie circle around the estranged romantic relationship between Jane and Grover. Baumbach’s sole stylistic device is to tell the story of their budding love in flashbacks that begin with black-and-white still images that pulse into colored motion, allowing him to begin the movie with their breakup and end it with their first kiss. As we learn more about the two of them, we see how much Jane has influenced the lives of Grover and his friends. She gets him hooked on cigarettes and then on scotch, and introduces him to the lame “townie” bar that becomes their hangout. The more we see of their first few meetings, the sadder it becomes that she has outgrown him, gone to Prague, and left him to sulk, drink, and have meaningless sex.
Yes, most of Kicking and Screaming’s dialogue is extremely quotable. It’s Baumbach’s debut, and he does all he can to keep everything snappy, so naturally the few moments when it doesn’t work stand out. Whether the writing or the timing is off, or the lines are just played badly, there are some exchanges that feel excessive or even embarrassing, as when Max and Miami stand at a bar together, pointing out the different “types” that go to their school, or the way that the characters take informal polls every now and then to see who among them last “beat off.” There is something endearingly un-hip and even clunky about this aspect of the movie, which is why it’s almost disheartening to see it re-marketed and re-released by Criterion according to Baumbach’s new, cooler, Wes Anderson sidekick, post-Squid-and-Whale image. Maybe this complaint is like a rock fan’s maintaining that he only likes a band’s ‘early stuff,’ but there is something undeniably special about the contrast between Kicking and Screaming’s standard, bland VHS cover art and the unexpected treasure of a film inside it.
It may belong to a certain bygone era of mid-90s talky indie movies, but recent college graduates will continue to come back to Kicking and Screaming for the way it perfectly articulates the anxious, shiftless feeling this stage in life gives us. It is a movie for disbanding friend groups and broken relationships, for that moment we realize the crowd we’ve spent the last four years with are becoming their own people, that moment we realize nothing can last forever, no matter how long you try to draw it out. It’s for that moment we understand that the only thing we can take with us of someone we love is our own memories of the time we spent with them. It is timeless and essential for us because it has truth, during a time when what we need is to find anyone, or anything, that understands.