Kicking and Screaming wasn’t really a big hit when it came out in 2005. Maybe its because its number-one goal was to showcase its star verbally and physically abusing kids.
Kicking and Screaming may be overlooked, but it deserves a fair shake — at least partially because it’s the kind of movie aimed at kids that adults will enjoy too — especially if they ever had parents who were way too concerned with their kids winning at sports. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the film’s snarky humor goes right over the heads of most children. But if they are like this movie’s main character, they might find out when they grow up that the effects could be permanent.
Will Ferrell stars as Phil Weston, an average suburban dad whose over-competitive father has scarred him for life. His feelings of inadequacy stem from a childhood in which he was consistently awful in sports, despite his Dad’s best efforts. Growing up, Phil was left to warm the bench while his father Buck (Robert Duvall) coached his soccer team to victory. In an early scene that sums up their relationship, Buck tells his son that he’ll get some playing time next season, but right now he’s trying to win this game.
Fast forward to the present day: Buck is still a locally renowned soccer coach and owner of a sporting goods store. He trades Phil’s 10-year old son to the last-place Tigers, and Phil is then coerced into the recently vacant head coach position.
Like most sports movies, especially ones featuring kids, Kicking and Screaming revolves around an unlikely underdog team who amazes everybody and ends up playing in the championship game. This movie is not, however, about the challenges that a bunch of cute kids overcome to win the big game.
Surprisingly, it’s a brutally absurd revenge flick that pits a mild-mannered vitamin salesman against his domineering father. The movie is no Kill Bill, but trapped inside the seemingly harmless veneer of a PG-rated kid’s movie lies a mischievous little devil of a film that is just “kicking and screaming” to get out.
Phil starts his coaching career vowing to teach the kids good values, but the team is so hopeless that he immediately begins looking for shortcuts to victory. Where most movies go straight for the feel-good situations, director Jesse Dylan (the eldest son of Bob Dylan) instead goes for the jugular, rooting the film’s nastiest comedy in Phil’s pent-up insecurities.
Although the film includes the standard scene where all the kids come together and realize that teamwork is the only way to win the big game, the script’s masterstroke is that it puts this unavoidable moment off until the last possible second. In fact, for most of the movie, Phil is a hysterical example of what a coach should absolutely not do.
One absurd idea Phil carries out is recruiting Super Bowl coach Mike Ditka, who also happens to be Buck’s bitter next-door neighbor and hated rival, as the Tigers assistant coach. Ditka plays a hilarious caricature of his own tough guy persona that matches well with Ferrell’s freewheeling, improvisational style. Once Ditka gets the caffeine-free Phil hooked on coffee, the real craziness begins.
Phil’s behavior turns from inappropriate to absurd, as he taunts the other teams by screaming “Loser!” in their faces through an orange pylon. Another bizarre and extremely funny moment has Ferrell wandering out on the field and actually pushing one of the kids down, face-first into the grass. It doesn’t look that funny on paper, but I’m chuckling to myself right now, just thinking about it.
Producer Jimmy Miller got the idea for this movie while watching Ferrell berate a little boy during a sketch on Saturday Night Live, and credit must go to him for such a simplistic and winning idea. There is something inherently amusing in watching a towering man-child like Ferrell go nuts on these kids. Writers Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick are aware that in order for the joke to work, though, Ferrell must be innocently oblivious of his attitude. Duvall wisely plays it straight, and by concentrating on Buck and Phil’s strained father/son relationship, Kicking and Screaming actually sometimes wanders beyond broad comedy into believable territory.
But let’s make no mistake. This is Ferrell’s movie. It may never really focus on the typical “kids who overcome impossible odds” motif, but who cares? Kicking and Screaming is very funny. It has more in common with Farrell’s charming Elf than with Anchorman and its complete lack of a coherent plot. Think of Kicking and Screaming as a kind of bridge between the two.
It’s about as anarchic as kids movies are allowed to get.