A film review by Craig J. Koban


2005, PG, 85 mins.


Phil Weston: Will Ferrell / Buck Weston: Robert Duvall / Mark Avery: Steven Anthony Lawrence / Bucky Weston: Josh Hutcherson / Sam Weston: Dylan McLaughlin / Stew: Scott Adsit / Himself: Mike Ditka

Directed by Jesse Dylan / Written by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick

I think that my awakening to the daft, capricious, and free spirited comic mastermind that is Will Ferrell occurred during a small moment in last year's funniest screen comedy – ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY

There is a scene that occurs where Ron (Ferrell) has witnessed the untimely (and somewhat ghastly) demise of his beloved dog Baxter (“a little Buddha covered in hair”, according to him at one point).  Afterwards, he calls in to his newsroom and attempts to break the news of Baxter’s death and relay his anguish in none-too-subtle terms.  In my review I called his mental breakdown here “a masterstroke of comic timing and ferocity.”  That’s the key to Ferrell’s abilities as a film comedian – his complete and utter adherence to do absolutely anything necessary (whether it be quiet and sly or outlandishly over-the-top and ridiculous) to get a laugh out of us.  I mean, despite the fact that his dog was viciously assaulted, when Burgundy tells his colleague on the phone that he’s “in a glass cage of emotion,” it’s sure hard not to laugh uproariously at him. 

Ferrell also has the ability to take an otherwise completely routine and formulaic film and make it uniquely his own.  That’s definitely the vibe I got after watching his new comedy KICKING AND SCREAMING.  This film occupies a world that has been dealt with countless times before in other films, especially the BAD NEWS BEARS series – that of competitive youth sports.  In this film's case the competitive sport is soccer, and KICKING AND SCREAMING is the usual manufactured menu of loner underdogs that have no abilities whatsoever and are finally given a chance to succeed, win, and overcome final odds at the proverbial “big game” during the final act.  Yes, the film does put a new spin on the proceedings, which will be discussed a bit later, but KICKING AND SCREAMING is not funny on a story or character level.  This film is a textbook clinic on how to effectively utilize a star of Ferrell’s caliber and let him loose to do whatever he has to do to garner our endless chuckles.  On this level, the film succeeds, and with Ferrell’s’ ever astute eye at providing endless comic hijinks, this film is always on good ground. 

Ferrell has had a mixed career in terms of his past films.  Some were forgettable, like 1998’s A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY and 1999’s SUPERSTAR.  Yet, a good chunk of his other works have been genuine laugh riots, like his zany portrayal of Watergate journalist Bob Woodard in the terribly underrated DICK, not to mention his hilarious turn as a 30 something born-again frat party machine in 2003’s OLD SCHOOL, a small but funny turn as a prisoner in STARSKY AND HUTCH, and finally his grandiose portrayal of a 1970's newsman in last year's ANCHORMAN.   If anything, films like ANCHORMAN and OLD SCHOOL reveal Ferrell’s biggest strength - his complete lack of self-censorship.  Whether he is running around completely nude in a drunken stupor, or singing "Afternoon Delight" with his friends, or engaging in wild, baseless, and inanely dumb improvisations about how San Diego is actually a German term for “whale vagina," Ferrell is truly talented as a wild and crazy comedian that has a sense of poignancy and vulnerability about him.  In ANCHORMAN he played such an incredible male chauvinist, yet he was so enormously likeable and innocuous in his ignorance that it was difficult to not like him. 

KICKING AND SCREAMING is a bit more of Will Ferrell in subdued form, at least for the film’s first 40 or 50 minutes, during which he plays a generally nice, pleasant, and seemingly innocent chap.  He plays Phil Weston, a grown man that is still kind of haunted by some painful childhood memories of how his father Buck (yes, Robert Duvall) used to make him a “benchwarmer” when he was his soccer coach.  Well, Buck still coaches little boys soccer, but there is nothing really little about it, as he teaches them more about the virtues of winning, never losing, and runs his outfit like a tight military group with a certain level of perverted exactness.  Robert DeNiro’s Jack Burns from MEET THE PARENTS would have gotten along famously with Buck.  Needless to say, a ripple in the family’s already shaky “circle of trust” is sent aloof when the unspeakable happens.  Buck has suddenly decided to trade his own grandson to another terrible team for no one in return because, in his sly and twisted mind, the boy sucks.  Of course, this makes Phil quite mad, as demonstrated in one of those quintessential Ferrell moments of disquietingly colourful and poetic rambling. “I’m mad…I’m really mad…I'm spitting mad...I’m a raging tornado of anger that’s twirling around!” 

Sick of the hurtful thoughts of the past when his own father considered him a loser, Phil decides to stick it to the old man by not allowing history to repeat itself again with his own son.  As a result, Phil decides to become his kid’s coach for his own team that is now competing in the same league as his father’s.  The boys on his kid’s team are the stereotypical ragtag of misfits that one finds in these type of underdog sports films.  We have the smartass, the large overweight cynic, and one remarkably small player that barely comes to the knees of his fellow teammates and opponents.  The team is in desperate need of a makeover.  Phil, becoming ever so desperate to exact pure comeuppance on his dad, decides to enlist in some serious aid. 

What type of "serious aid"?  First, he enlists two kids at a local Italian butchery, both of whom have incredible Beckham-like skills that are well ahead of their limited years.  The second recruit is his most crucial one to shaping not only his team, but his coaching style as a whole.  Yes, you guessed it, he recruits 1985 Super Bowl winning coach Mike Ditka…yes…that Mike Ditka (who is played by Mike Ditka).  The shrewdness of his selection is twofold: Firstly, Ditka is Buck’s neighbour who hates Buck with a passion and would do anything to make him suffer.  Secondly, he’s MIKE DITKA!  

Ditka and Ferrell soon become one of this year’s most offbeat and colorful comic duos.  Ditka decides to become Phil’s assistant coach and provides him with lots of helpful bits of coaching wisdom.  Oh, he also adds one utterly decisive weapon in Phil’s cognitive arsenal – he introduces him to the frantic world of coffee.  This provides for some of the film’s wildest and funniest moments.  Phil, being a health food nut, is not really into coffee.  However, when he makes his first step into a local shop, discovers what he calls a “wonderful and fascinating aroma,” he soon becomes an unapologetic caffeine-aholic.  His addiction becomes so agitated in its lucidity that he even gets banned from the coffee shop.  Why?  Maybe it was his insistence that his frequent renter’s card at the video store had to be good for a free drink at the coffee shop. 

After his rapid introduction to caffeine, Phil quickly descends into full-on crazy, obsessive-compulsive winning coach mode, which Ferrell embraces with a zeal and frenzied comic edge.  He soon becomes everything that he despises, a coach that is more like a Navy Seal Captain than that of  a children’s soccer coach.  His advice also becomes increasingly more unorthodox, not to mention controversial with the parents (“Hey, breaking an opponent’s collar bone is a good thing”).  It soon becomes apparent to Phil that this may not be the wisest choice of role modeling for his son and team.  When all is said and done, Phil cleans up his act (he destroys the espresso machine he had built for the team bench) and decides to coach the team with a flair for having fun and not winning.  All of this culminates in the final “big game” where father must combat son with a winner-take-all mentality.  There is clearly no surprise in who claims the field at the end of this film. 

But then again, its not the film’s completely manufactured storyline and themes that are paramount to its small sense of triumph.  There are messages to be felt here – that parents take far too much advantage in participating in their kid’s recreational activities to the point where they start living vicariously through them.  These concepts are nothing new.  KICKING AND SCREAMING exists primarily as a forum for Will Ferrell's abilities, and he in no way disappoints here.  This film is also sort of a refreshingly funny family film (not a dime a dozen by modern standards) and I was surprised by how humorous such a relatively clean film like this is.  That is not to say that I have been shy from Ferrell’s more raunchy and scatological comedies, some of which I have loved.  KICKING AND SCREAMING owes a bit more to Ferrell’s turn in ELF, another hilarious film where its laughs are not generated at bodily functions or gross out gags.  No, Ferrell as the coach here sort of demonstrates a bit more of a multifaceted approach.  He is capable of being shy, quiet and mild mannered with real emotional issues. However, he is still not tired of exploding into kinetic frivolities that get laughs from just how inspired they are on a tone, energy, and performance level.  Phil here, much like that hapless SOB Ron Burgundy, is a cartoon character with a heart.  He means well, even when he engages in morally questionable behavior.   

KICKING AND SCREAMING may not be the laugh riot that was ANCHORMAN, but it still is one of the more consistently funny films of the year.  In an cinematic age where comedies, like last year's train wreck that was EUROTRIP, rely so heavily on vileness, nihilism, and disgusting gags and jokes, it’s a pleasant diversion to know that KICKING AND SCREAMING can generate more chuckles with a decidedly less profane and nauseating approach.  Hey, don’t get me wrong, I have laughed at some of the more sickening sights in recent movie memory (for example, Ben Stiller getting a vital area of his anatomy caught in his zipper in THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY or Woody Harrelson thinking he’s drinking cow’s milk in KINGPIN), but KICKING AND SCREAMING is a kinder, sweeter, gentler type of screen comedy.  Ferrell may not have been trapped in a “glass cage of emotion" throughout all of its proceedings, but it sure is amazing how funny one man can be after ten straights shots of the most powerful coffee shooters.

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