Kicking and Screaming

(2005) ** 1/2 Pg
87 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Jesse Dylan. Cast: Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall, Kate Walsh, Mike Ditka, Musetta Vander.

Kicking and Screaming is a slapdash comedy with uneasy tone shifts and uneven performances. The first half of the movie is low on energy and utterly lacking in finesse. But something happens halfway through the movie: star Will Ferrell cuts loose, unleashing the "suppressed rage" of soccer-dad Phil Weston. Suddenly, we're in a cauldron of blood and coffee and Gatorade. Once Kicking and Screaming hits this stride, it's difficult not to laugh at this comedy of man-urge.

Phil's son Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) is a little-league soccer player for the intimidating Gladiators, coached by Phil's rapacious father Buck (Robert Duvall). When Buck "trades" (or, rather, gives away) Sam to the misfit Tigers, circumstances conspire to find Phil reluctantly coaching his son's team. The stakes are heightened by the competition between Phil and his father, who has always beaten his son at everything (adding insult to injuries, he says of Phil, "I love him like a son"). Bellowing on the field and chuckling and gloating around the house, Duvall's passive-aggressive bastard easily makes enemies, including his next-door neighbor: Super Bowl championship football coach Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears.

Duvall's measured, avuncular menace is a hoot, and Ditka literally acquits himself admirably, but the movie belongs to Ferrell. At first, Ferrell grotesquely overacts (in close-up) as he tries to hold together the domestic exposition of a weak script by Steve Rudnick & Leo Benvenuti. The writers fail to build an original comic scene which capitalizes on Phil's lack of coaching knowledge: he shows up unprepared (reading from a book on soccer), and the kids run rampant. "Why," Phil shrieks at one point, "is everyone slapping me lately?!" The answer is that he's a complete mess, characterized by well-intentioned but utterly inept and annoying behavior.

With the exception of Steven Anthony Lawrence as a team clown, the 10-to-12-year-old Tigers are defined only by stereotypical signifiers: one kid's only trait is that he's willing to eat a worm. Their weaknesses serve as reflectors for Phil's failure and festering stresses. Phil's not exactly healthy at the outset (his panic attacks resemble heart palpitations), but when Ditka casually introduces the caffeine teetotaler to coffee, trouble is clearly brewing. With the help of Ditka and the recruiting of two Italian butcher's apprentices, the Tigers begin to win, but Phil's caffeine-fueled obsession alienates the team and particularly Sam, who finds homself bench-warming once again.

Phil's new heights of annoyance suddenly become absurdly funny, as his bad behavior—paired with the team's success—turn him into a cruel and unrelenting monster. Guzzling cappucino, Phil yells at the kids when they fail to get the ball to "the Italians" fast enough, threatens to eat one of his underperforming players (Elliot Cho's pint-sized Byong Sun), and shoves a child competitor to the turf. The spectacle of Ferrell bop-bopping "Get Ready for This" on the sidelines in a tiger-striped, sky-blue sweatsuit is enough to lift the half-hearted kiddie sports comedy into happily crazed comic territory.

These outrageous gestures fly exactly because they are in the "safe" context of a family comedy, established (but never truly felt) in the first half of the film and just as swiftly restored to order in the film's final moments. Ferrell's underlying sweetness assures audiences that the nightmarish soccer dad of the news is only a bad dream here, and paternal love finally gives Sam the license to show his stuff on the field (I suppose it would be some kind of screenwriting crime if Sam actually did suck at soccer).

More unsettling are the familiar conflicts of machismo between the hard-ass dad and his loser son (in an amusing idea that only steps up in the film's waning moments, the "good son" with whom Phil must compete is Bucky, a star Gladiator that's the same age as Sam). Being a successful businessman and a loving son and father aren't enough: it takes a pillage—only by hurting his father's feelings (by threatening to supplant his manly authority) can Phil win his grudging respect.

Given the Bad News Bears paradigm director Jesse Dylan works here, Kicking and Screaming will surely appeal to kids. Good sportsmanship gets played for laughs, but on a child's level, the messages are mostly clear: both teamwork and self-respectful skill-building are cool, and adults don't know what they're doing (so don't take offense at their bad behavior). Kids will have to find out for themselves that the real Dr. Jekylls of the little-league soccer field don't revert to Mr. Hydes so easily.

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