This essay about Noah Baumbach’s first feature was commissioned by Criterion for their DVD of Kicking and Screaming, and was written around May 2006. — J.R.
“There’s plenty of wit on the surface,” I wrote in my capsule review of Kicking and Screaming when it was released a little over a decade ago, “but the pain of paralysis comes through loud and clear.” Having voluntarily spent five years as an undergraduate myself, I could and still can find plenty of reasons to identify with the four desperate antiheroes of this brittle comedy, who graduate from college and then proceed to spend the next half year on or around campus, doing as little as possible.
Grover (Josh Hamilton), expecting to live in Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Jane (Olivia d’Abo), is so dumbstruck and angry when she accepts a scholarship to study in Prague that he won’t reply to any of her phone messages, and can only brood over their past in five strategically placed flashbacks, each one heralded by a black-and-white snapshot of her. Otis (Carlos Jacott) finds himself incapable of flying to grad school in Milwaukee, only one time zone away, and reverts to living with his mother. Max (Chris Eigeman), who’d rather label broken glass as such on the floor than sweep it up, finds nothing better to do than chide Otis, do crossword puzzles, and have sex with Miami (Parker Posey), the girlfriend of Skippy (Jason Wiles). And Skippy literally returns to school but can’t bring himself to do any of the work. As Miami and Kate (Cara Buona) — a sixteen-year-old to whom Max turns next — both point out at separate junctures, these four friends tend to talk and behave in the same way, inventing arcane quizzes (“Can you name eight movies in which monkeys play a major role?”) while downing lots of scotch and beer and in general comprising something that resembles a four-man frat house.
The coexistence of wit and trauma has become even more apparent in the work of writer-director Noah Baumbach since his debut feature — not just in his next two theatrical features, Mr. Jealousy (1997) and the Oscar-nominated The Squid and the Whale (2005), and in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), which Baumbach helped to write, but also in eight of the nine short humor pieces he’s published to date in The New Yorker. Seven of these have appeared under the magazine’s rubric “Shouts and Murmurs,” and in a way, those two kinds of utterances and their subtle, interactive relationship sum up Baumbach’s form of expressiveness: murmured wisecracks that seem calculated to stifle, delay, or else supercede assorted shouts and screams. Indeed, it may have been the relative absence of trauma from Baumbach’s miscalculated Highball (1998) — a comedy shot in only six days, and that he formally disowned by assigning the writing and directing credits to pseudonyms — that prevented it from scoring, along with the haste that handicapped his actors, raising the possibility that there may not even be such a thing as Noah Baumbach lite. The heavy anxiety that eventually takes center stage in The Squid and the Whale is already clearly waiting in the wings in his first feature.
To some extent, this is hallowed J. D. Salinger territory — to cite a writer often linked to Anderson and Whit Stillman, as well as Baumbach — in which the urbane banter and nervous breakdowns of adolescents and postadolescents seem to run neck and neck, so that freezing up and pontificating, the two things that Baumbach’s four male postgraduates do so adroitly, are little more than a preppy form of kicking and screaming, designed to keep the wolf at bay.
Kicking and Screaming was made when Baumbach was just 25, roughly halfway between his first two New Yorker pieces — an imaginary TV interview with painter Georges Seurat (November 18, 1991) and an imaginary Keith Richards diary chronicling the perusal of his “Desert-Island Disks” (November 29, 1999) — and about five years before he started sketching out some of the ingredients of his painfully autobiographical The Squid and the Whale in “The Power List: My Family” (January 22, 2001). In most of these examples, as well as others I could cite, the perils of being precociously overeducated — or rather, sophisticated beyond one’s capacity to cope with sophistication — are a recurring dilemma. In the first extended dialogue of Kicking and Screaming, Grover illustrates this syndrome by trying to sound off knowledgeably about Prague when all he can do is make superficial, jokey allusions to Kundera and Kafka. And in the even more autocritical The Squid and the Whale, the intellectual bluffing of teenager Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) is still more pronounced, because, like one of Grover’s pals, he often hasn’t read the books he expounds upon.
The older son of two fiction writers and sometime film and/or literary critics, Georgia Brown (The Village Voice) and Jonathan Baumbach (Partisan Review), who separated during his teens, Noah Baumbach appears to have processed certain aspects of both their literary personae and their movie cultures, making them very much his own. His father appears in a cameo in Kicking and Screaming, presiding over the writer’s workshop where Grover meets Jane, and his mother subsequently figures in Mr. Jealousy, on a theater marquee, declaring The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance “a classic.” More generally, both parents seem to be evoked when Grover meets his father (Elliott Gould) — in one of the best-observed scenes in the film — and they discuss many of the ramifications of his recent separation. (Noah Baumbach also appears briefly, somewhat earlier, inventing his own arcane quiz question: “What would you rather do, fuck a cow or lose your mother?”)
Kicking and Screaming has often understandably been linked with two previous Generation X comedies from the same producer, Joel Castleberg — Bodies, Rest & Motion (1993) and Sleep with Me (1994). Both these films star Eric Stoltz, who also figures in Kicking and Screaming, as a long-term philosophy major and bartender who’s remained on campus for ten years — in some ways a more advanced case of the malady affecting the four leads, but in other ways more grounded and focused, because by now he has a child and cheerfully accepts the identity of being a permanent student as something more than a default position. Reportedly, a part for Stoltz was a precondition for Baumbach’s first feature getting made, and his role was written shortly before the movie went into production. But if this is true, it obviously had a happy result, because Stoltz, who went on to play the title role in Mr. Jealousy (which Castleberg also produced), brings to the movie a kind of laid-back, philosophical wisdom that’s sorely needed, at least among the male characters. (All the women — including, from what we hear, Grover’s unseen mother, and even the teenage Kate — seem more levelheaded than the guys, despite the fact that Jane’s in therapy and plays compulsively with her retainer.)
Baumbach is also often cross-referenced with Whit Stillman, who has used the versatile and resourceful Chris Eigeman in all three of his own features, Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) — and Wes Anderson (who has enlisted Baumbach as a co-writer again on his latest project, Fantastic Mr. Fox). But if Stillman’s own witty way with dialogue and youthful behavior and his keen sense of locale periodically suggest Eric Rohmer, and Anderson at his best (as in 1998’s Rushmore) has the high-style populist wit of an Ernst Lubitsch, I think Baumbach’s most relevant influence is someone looser and more experimental than either of these: Jean Renoir. His Renoir-like taste for long takes, where he sometimes lets his camera roam while following his actors from a distance, is already strikingly evident in the very first shot of Kicking and Screaming. Even more to the point, his best gifts as a director are related to a capacity to coax unexpected and wonderful things from his actors — which is no less apparent in the final shot. It’s a moment of surprise conveying some sense of hope, even though Baumbach is sufficiently guarded to keep it in a flashback.