Kicking & Screaming might be the most predictable movie of the year, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Think about it: How many times have you gone to a movie and gotten far less than you were expecting? Here, that's not a concern -- you may not get more than you thought, but it delivers exactly what you think it will. Namely, Will.
Fans of Will Ferrell's repressed-crybaby persona have the first half to enjoy, while those who prefer nutcase, running-around-naked Will get that later. The catalyst for the change turns out to be coffee; if you'd like your kids to stay away from caffeine, Kicking & Screaming is the ultimate public service announcement.
Ferrell plays a nebbishy vitamin salesman named Phil who has forever lived in the shadow of his ultracompetitive father Buck, played, in an odd bit of stunt casting, by Robert Duvall. Though we learn early on that Phil is no great shakes as an athlete, and therefore no threat to his father's masculinity, Buck can't stop one-upping him anyway, announcing his remarriage on the same day Phil announces his first marriage, and even producing a new baby at the same time as Phil -- one that happens to be bigger by an ounce.
Buck is so driven that when he ends up coaching a kids' soccer team, he benches his own grandson Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) before trading him away to the worst team in the league, a group of misfits ironically named the Tigers. When the Tiger coach mysteriously disappears, Phil finds himself stepping in -- and in way over his head. That is, until he enlists the help of Buck's angry neighbor . . . Mike Ditka. Ditka introduces Phil to coffee, and things spiral out of control from there.
Father-son competition is hardly a new cinematic idea, nor is the story of fathers pushing their sons too far -- the recent low-budget release Down and Derby dealt with similar issues, and showed everyone how not to make a movie on the topic. Ferrell and Duvall are the right guys for the job, though, as midlife crisis and tough ol' bastard are their respective specialties. The surprise is that Ditka holds his own in a major role. Granted, he's playing himself (with an actress playing his wife), but that's not always an easy thing to do, especially when the role requires you to appear borderline abusive toward children and defiant to your spouse.
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Director Jesse Dylan, who previously gave us American Wedding and How High, will probably have his biggest hit with Kicking & Screaming, but he needs to work with his editors (three of them are credited) a little more. At times, jokes are spliced up against jokes in disorienting ways, apparently because the thinking was to keep the laughs coming without regard for continuity. Wait, suddenly everyone's in a different room? But they didn't even look like they were leaving the last one? What happened? Oh, wait, joke. Ha-ha! Whoa, now where are we? Oh, Will's saying something funny again -- never mind.
The real credit should go to whoever arranged all the music clearances. "Eye of the Tiger," "Chariots of Fire," "You're the Inspiration," "Let's Get It Started" and "We Are the Champions" are but a few of the anthems on display that are so viscerally hardwired into our popular culture that they unfailingly elicit a reaction. They can't have come cheap, but one wonders if Jesse called in some favors from his rock star brother Jakob (or their slightly better-known dad).
Let us not nitpick that the climax is implausible, or that some of the soccer moves on display would be a wee bit less than legal in a real game. Be glad instead that the kids aren't insufferably cute. (At least one of them is downright ugly, actually.) Enjoy the fact that Ferrell can get laughs by saying obvious things like "That really hurt my face!" after an airbag detonates on him. There's even a token anti-SUV joke, which might be funnier if movie stars would actually stop driving them.
Marvel also at the fact that a lesbian couple with a child is depicted absolutely normally, with the humor stemming from the way others react to them rather than from stereotypical behavior on their part. Reactionary nutcases will likely decry these otherwise innocuous characters as unnecessary and offensive, but the absolute casualness with which the movie handles such things is a positive sign of the times.