Eschewing the patter and dance of comedy’s yesteryear, contemporary humor takes on the insouciant mugging and improvisation of Saturday Night Live, discarding mannered performance in favor of inanity and playful disobedience. This defiant mentality, directly referenced by plot and subconsciously inferred by structure, wags its finger at patriarchal authority, taking bosses and rivals to task for the oppressive dogma of education and prudence.
Fueled by rivalry and a lifetime of “suppressed rage,” this predominantly male breed of slapstick expounds upon the perpetual fray waged between authoritarian “fathers” and maladjusted “sons,” building allegiance from a like-minded audience that contends with a private Dean Wormer or Shooter McGavin beyond theater walls. The resulting product acts as an opiate for these fraternal masses, granting temporary victory over feelings of inferiority, without directly alluding to the father complex roiling beneath the surface.
Despite a narrative allegiance to this subgenus and the employment of one of its luminaries, Kicking & Screaming surpasses its kindred spirits by targeting the fountainhead of Phil Weston’s (Will Ferrell) anxiety, refusing a surrogate for the emotional damage done by a detached father (Robert Duvall). It even allows Phil’s tenderness and whimsy to act as the film’s centerpiece, setting boundaries between passages of amiable farce and uncomfortable illustrations of Dad’s ruthlessness. By setting this partition, Phil’s neurosis is never made into the butt of the joke, enabling a jovial, fish-out-of-water story to triumph over the insensitivities of a callous artform.
Born into a culture of “benchwarmers,” Phil has endured the failures of an unathletic past, refusing the shame of a sedentary lifestyle for his soccer-obsessed son. Following the teen’s expulsion from his grandfather’s undefeated squad, Phil takes it upon himself to pencil the boy into a starting lineup, enlisting Mike Ditka, sausage-making Italian wunderkinds and the stimulating bliss of espresso in his quest to triumph over a truculent and unrelenting father.
Regardless of a humbling moment and much-needed decaffeination, Kicking & Screaming stays true to an altruistic character, restraining Will Ferrell’s penchant for unscripted puerility to dramatically-vital, and often hilarious, divergences. Though the camerawork is plagued by a quaking best employed in video-game combat, the color palette suits the demeanor, allowing estival blues and greens to parallel the good-natured joshing of adolescence and the idiosyncrasies of suburban parentage. Through this innocuity, each laugh is earned without condescension, encapsulating the sentimentality of summer sport and the enduring notion of a parent venturing to make a better life for his children.
Kicking & Screaming (Universal Pictures, 2005)
Directed by Jesse Dylan
Written by Lee Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick
Photographed by Lloyd Ahern