Holy cow. You’re probably asking, “Hey Erik, how is this your first Baumbach film?” To which I answer: I have no idea. What have I been doing with my time? This film, Baumbach’s first feature, is absolutely wild and inspiring. What fantastic characters, what solid dialogue, what fun, what sadness! What a time!
There may be some spoilers but I’ll mark major spoilers with something like “MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUT TO OCCUR”.
I honestly have zero idea of what I was expecting. I’ve heard about the film before but only knew loglines that sounded like, “kids graduate college and don’t leave,” which led me to think the film was going to be a cookie-cutter comedy that focused on the fun of not growing up. Which could have been fun. But from the very first Max Ophuls-esque shot blaring The Pixies and picking up weird bits of dialogue that didn’t necessarily add to the story but definitely added to the world, I knew I was in for something way unexpected.
Grover’s first conversation with his ladyfriend Jane made me remember how awe-struck I was by the opening dialogue in The Social Network (2010). Just a fast, in your face, “these people are smart” way of talking that draws you in with its fantastic wit. Cut this conversation with splices of Grover’s pals talking about drinking delivered with a deadpan sarcasm that could possibly make a viewer think, “what? Is he being serious?” And then the bit about the pajama top. By golly, that’s humor! Humor! While cutting back to the protagonist and the start of his conflict? Amazing!
This could maybe help you fellow writers out there. Look at how the conflict is set up in the very first scene. But then you watch the rest of the film. The rest of the seemingly plotless film. Maybe themes and conflict can be introduced in the beginning of a work and then you can allow the characters to live their lives in regards to these themes and conflicts. But it’s not like there’s a “real” conflict happening (i.e. Grover has 90 minutes to stop a bomb), it’s an existential conflict. One about not being with the person you’re supposed to be with because they’re in Prague. One about being forced to grow up but not being ready to. Not to say that there are not little moments of conflict. How about the scene when Kate screams at the “I’d Rather Be Bowhunting” pickup-truck driver who is about to take her parking spot? And Max is just sitting there stunned and totally unsure what to do because this pickup-truck driver doesn’t even want to be here, he’d rather be bowhunting.
(Scene starts at 0:35)
So there’s little moments of conflict, more like little episodes, we watch people we enjoy watching go through. This isn’t to say everything is fun. There is still the main conflict happening. We can’t forget about that. So we’re shown little moments of the camera moving into a voicemail machine and it’s Jane calling from Prague saying some sweet things. But then her voicemail is cut short or Grover just stops listening. Ergo, we stop listening. It’s a great repeated device that keeps bringing us back to the central conflict.
And then the plot gets a little non-linear, but not really, which is totally groovy. We just get scenes from the past. We know we’re in the past because 1) we see Jane and Grover together and 2) these scenes are introduced with a black and white freeze frame of Jane, dissolved into a sepia freeze frame, dissolved into a color freeze frame, then into the actual moving film. Baumbach said he took influence from La Jetée (1962) for these flashbacks. La Jetée is a whole film done with still photographs (save for one shot, I think) and is about time travel/the past/the way things were, so it is entirely appropriate that this is how we as the audience are introduced to the scenes of the past. Especially since the whole film has a theme of nostalgia, which I’ll talk about at the very end. But these are more of the serious moments of the film. It’s where we see Jane and Grover together and, unlike the first scene where she reveals she is going to Prague, act as two people attracted to each other. The first time we flashback, though, and I’ll have to check (not right now, remember, this is hastily written) is when Jane and Grover have their first conversation but have not officially met. They’re in a writing class and the other students are absolutely loving Grover’s wonderful words. But, alas, Jane points out some problems she has with it. So we know right away that she is not like the other students. She has an opinion, which is totally rad. And I’d like to point out that she does not seem like one of those stereotyped Zooey Deschanel quirky girls who read hip books just because. As evident from the first scene, she is just as smart and witty and as capable as the male protagonist. She’s also not a stereotypical “bitchy” girlfriend. Heck, she invites Grover to go to Prague with her but he won’t go because… he doesn’t want to postpone his post-college anxiety? Look at that character flaw that drives the whole story forward! The art of storytelling!
Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked there. I’m just trying to say that the flashbacks worked for revealing character and conflict and backstory. It’s interesting, we don’t feel Grover’s pain until the end of the film. We are slowly revealed information about what he has lost and it makes the film painful. There’s no way this film could ever work if told in a linear fashion. I can’t even comprehend how it’d work. It’d be a completely different film and in a bad way. I see the flashbacks as allowed to be in the film because of that nostalgia theme (I told you I’d talk about it again!). The whole film can probably be summarized by this scene (starts around 1:34 but watch the whole thing). Sure, Max is saying it. But don’t you think the joke in the film that all these boys talk the same means something?
So, to end this hastily written review, Kicking and Screaming was awesome. Definitely more character-driven than a conventional film. But never underestimate the power of strong characters, strong side-characters, and strong side-side-characters. A lot of where the charm comes from in this film is when the camera goes by random people talking and they’re there ACTUALLY saying something and not pretending to talk. Just doing little things like that can totally add to your film and make it a world the audience wants to be in.
Thanks for reading. Go watch Kicking and Screaming. And La Jetée.