The clout of SNL alum Will Ferrell as a box office draw has only grown since 2003's family friendly Elf, followed by the PG-13 rated Anchorman in 2004. So despite the title, you won't have to drag kids (or adults) to Kicking & Screaming.
It also helps that the film subject is one of the most popular sports with children today. Yet despite coining the soccer mom demographic more than a decade ago, it's taken this long to create a definitive movie focused on the enormous popularity of youth soccer. And despite regular news stories about overzealous parents who become more emotionally invested in the game than their offspring, it's still a timely premise.
Set (but not filmed) in the Chicago suburbs, Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a mild-mannered vitamin salesman with his own health store. Despite a loving family and a successful business, we learn that he's never lived up to the expectations of his fanatically competitive father Buck (Robert Duvall), the owner of a popular sporting goods store and coach of the Gladiators, the local champion soccer team.
Because Buck is so focused on his team's success, Phil's 10-year-old son Sam (Dylan McLaughlin), a member of his grandpa's team, spends more time warming the bench than he does running on the field. In an underutilized gag, Buck's star player is his own boy Bucky (Josh Hutcherson), the product of his second marriage—and thus Phil's 10-year-old stepbrother. When Phil implores for his father to give Sam more game time, he learns that Buck has already transferred his grandson to the Tigers ("You traded my son?" "Well, I didn't actually get anything for him … ").
Unfortunately, the Tigers are in last place, due to questionable talent and a coach so dispassionate, he ditches the team after the first game of the season. Determined to make his son happy, Phil volunteers to coach the Tigers, which of course ends up playing the Gladiators in his first game. It isn't long before the athletically challenged father learns that he's in over his head, but how to shape up the team in short time?
Simple. Mike Ditka—former coach of the Chicago Bears—happens to be Buck's next-door neighbor and "mortal enemy"—developments like this only occur in comedies. The two have a viscous rivalry, so the legendary Ditka is all too happy to serve as Phil's assistant and whip the kids into shape. Additionally, he helps recruit two Italian soccer prodigies from the neighborhood who immediately become the Tigers' primary game plan: "Pass it to the Italians."
Soon the Tigers are winning games, but at what cost? And as Phil gains a taste for competitive sports (not to mention caffeine), he begins to change as well. After a heated match of tetherball, father and son make a serious wager concerning their two teams, taking their competitive relationship to overenthusiastic levels.
Granted, originality is not one of the film's stronger suits. Like so many other retreads of The Bad News Bears or The Mighty Ducks, Kicking & Screaming relies on the usual clichés: the training montages, the championship match, the unbelievable game-winning shot. It's also got a few of those "Gimme a break" moments, like the kid who suddenly plays better when the coach realizes he just needs a pair of glasses.
But the big game in Kicking & Screaming is only part of the story. The familial relationships and themes of inspiring confidence are more central to the story. They add a new dimension to the final game, thus making it somewhat more unpredictable. You don't want either Weston to win because it reinforces their bad behavior—something else has to give before we can root for one of them.
For better or worse, good comedy is rooted in reality. We've all experienced overzealous parents firsthand, or else heard horror stories about the lengths they'll go to in order to live vicariously through their children. This isn't just a movie about lovable losers trying to prove themselves. It's also about the difference between winning at all costs and having fun. And it deals with parental expectations and reconciliation, both between Phil and Sam as well as Buck and Phil.
Make no mistake, though. Ferrell is the primary draw, and it turns out to be a great (if not unremarkable) role for him. The idea was to have him in a movie that allows him to interact with kids. He's good with them, and in fact became a first-time father during the filming. Ferrell is good at playing lovable and crazy, and he gets to play both in Kicking & Screaming—think Steve Martin's humorous parental tone (Parenthood, Cheaper by the Dozen) evolving into Jim Carrey's unleashed-though-grounded mania (Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty). In a film highlight, he also engages in some physical comedy, failing at varying sports in college during an opening flashback sequence.
It's fun to see the nice guy gradually turn his repressed rage loose. Although Phil is such a nice family man at the start, it actually becomes a little unnerving to see him go over the top, becoming his father and pushing the kids too far. But that's the point, right?
Ferrell still needs other good actors to play off of, and Duvall distinguishes himself in his first true comedic role since M*A*S*H* in 1970, with the possible exception of 2003's Secondhand Lions. It's no surprise that this excellent actor pulls it off, since we've seen hints of humor in his previous roles. He makes a convincing over-competitive father—essentially the villain and Phil's cause of grief in the movie—yet he still manages to keep his character lovable.
The greater revelation is Ditka, who says he merely had to play himself. But he does more than give a clichéd guest performance. He makes a fine comedic foil, playing the straight man or the crazy man against Ferrell as necessary with fun and energy. An early scene showing him arguing with his wife over smoking a cigar shows that he'd even make a good Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace. There's just something immensely satisfying in watching "Da Coach" inspire greatness by yelling at the undisciplined kids as if they're professional football players.
Speaking of, many of these kids show dimension, developed just enough for us to remember and enjoy their personalities. Even though most of them are little more than caricatures, the screenwriters (responsible for both Santa Clause films) smartly give them just enough for us to care, keeping the focus on Ferrell and the central characters. The standout is Byong Sun (mispronounced in the movie as Beyoncé), played by Elliot Cho and sure to be the next breakout cute kid since Jonathan Lipnicki (Jerry Maguire). Plus, there are scenes where the teammates seem to bond together as real children would. The two Italian boys patiently try to teach some soccer moves to the others, while the rest help them with their English. No one is too overly bratty or ridiculous—they ring true.
Not to overanalyze such a simple comedy. Except for some ball jokes that will sail over the heads of young children (while causing dads to snicker), this is the rare live action comedy that's appropriate for the whole family and still funny. Kicking & Screaming succeeds because it understands its target audience, refraining from playing it too cute or crude. Though predictable, it's well executed, with the actors and filmmakers coordinating like a championship team … and having fun in the process.Discussion starters
- Early on, Phil struggles to make time for his son while juggling his job responsibilities. Being a good parent is paramount, but to what extent should a father sacrifice his job for a "game?"
- Some parents live vicariously through their children in their extracurricular activities, be it sports, arts, or even grades. What are some ways parents can become burdens to their children? How can parents be supportive in their kids' talents and activities?
- Is it better to sit the bench on a winning team, or to play the game for a losing team? Self-esteem and pride play into both, so is one scenario really better than another? What lessons can kids learn from both situations? How can parents counsel their children in either case?
- What does the Bible say about provoking children to anger? (See Ephesians 6:1-4). Is it possible to coach without riding the players too hard, or is some of that expected in sports? Conversely, how should kids respond to authority, parental or coaching?
- Whether we want to or not, for better or worse, we often take on the traits of our parents. Is it possible to refrain from unwanted traits? How can we discern when we need to change?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Kicking & Screaming only uses a couple of profanities in the entire film. The crude humor refers to some ball jokes that will likely sail over the heads of young children. There is one (very funny) scene where a soccer team takes the field after spending the day at a slaughterhouse—though they're smeared in blood, it's played for laughs and not graphic or over the top. Also, one of the team members is the adopted child of a lesbian couple; the subject only comes up in one scene, handled with such subtlety that kids might ask questions to understand it. Otherwise, the film is refreshingly wholesome, suitable for family viewing.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 05/19/05
It's not hard to imagine the conversation when somebody pitched the idea for Kicking and Screaming to Universal: "What if you put Will Ferrell as coach of a youth soccer team, and—" "We have a deal!!"
Ferrell is, to quote one of his own characters, "so hot right now." Last year's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was a hit. He's in Woody Allen's latest—Melinda and Melinda. He'll be in the upcoming Bewitched, a comedy called The Wedding Crashers, an animated version of Curious George, a remake of Land of the Lost, and there's talk of Elf 2. In Kicking and Screaming, he's the coach of his son's soccer team and taking these young bad news boys up against a rival team coached by … his own father (Robert Duvall).
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Granted, originality is not one of the film's stronger suits. But the big game in Kicking & Screaming is only part of the story. The familial relationships and themes of inspiring confidence are more central to the story. They add a new dimension to the final game, thus making it somewhat more unpredictable. This isn't just a movie about lovable losers trying to prove themselves. It's also about the difference between winning at all costs and having fun. This is the rare live action comedy that's appropriate for the whole family and still funny. Though predictable, it's well executed, with the actors and filmmakers coordinating like a championship team … and having fun in the process."
Bob Smithouser (Plugged In) says, "When I heard that the director of the raunchy, R-rated comedy American Wedding was at the helm, I feared we'd get a distasteful movie full of foul-mouthed children—The Bad News Bears in cleats. Not so. These are decent, generally respectful kids whose innocence plays beautifully against Ferrell's manic insecurity. Unlike comics with an aggressive swagger and no fear of retaliation, Ferrell's bombast always contains hints of an exit strategy. It makes this suburban dad … vulnerable and easy to sympathize with."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "offers a humorous critique of our hypercompetitive culture. But beyond its breezy 'winning isn't everything' moral, the film imparts a more serious message about parental approval and the long-term emotional damage that can result when such validation is withheld. However, [it] deserves a penalty flag for its inclusion of a vulgar running gag involving Buck's double-entendre sales slogan that is hardly appropriate for a 'kid-friendly' movie—though most of the objectionable elements will, like a soccer ball, probably bounce over youngsters' heads."
"[Director Jesse] Dylan does the best thing possible with a weak script," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "He turns the cameras on Ferrell and tries to stay out of the way. The result is a barely passable but sometimes amusing family comedy."
Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) isn't pleased at all. "If all you're looking for is a film without objectionable content that you can take your kid to see, and you don't care a whit about the message, this is it (with a few completely gratuitous exceptions). Otherwise, I'd run kicking and screaming out of this one."
Mainstream critics aren't getting much of a kick out of it.