Okay, not even that was the strange and wonderful thing! I lied! There are 500,000 movies which fit this description! The strange, wonderful, nearly unimaginable thing which happened was: I saw this movie, and I liked it.
I KNOW! It was so crazy! I may never get over it! WHO AM I.
The movie that I saw was called Kicking and Screaming. It was written and directed by one Noah Baumbach. It is, I tell you, a fantastic movie, simply because it is one of the meanest and most honest movies I have seen. (I like mean! And honest!) It is a tremendous takedown, this movie, of (a) undergraduate intellectual pretension, (b) that tired Generation X “slacker” mythos, which was lame and embarrassing even in its time, and (c) the whole Apatovian man-child dynamic. Which, considering the fact that it was made in 1995, before there even was an Apatovian man-child dynamic, is quite an accomplishment.
Anyway! On to the movie! It begins with five dudes, most of whom have just graduated college, and are having that “WHOA, dudes, WHAT WILL COME NEXT FOR US, this is so heavy” conversation that everyone throughout the history of colleges and/or graduations has had. Like most people, these five dudes are convinced that their conversation is unique and fascinating; also, deep.
Actually, these five dudes are convinced that everything they have to say is unique and fascinating and deep, or (worse still) deep precisely because of its careful avoidance of depth or meaning. These men: Jesus God, they are so terrible. Never have I seen a group of characters work so hard to establish themselves as urbane and witty and intelligent. Like most people who try this hard – and, specifically, like most people in their early twenties – they fail spectacularly, coming across instead as pretentious and affected and annoying on levels heretofore unknown to man. I cannot get this across with prose alone (especially not MY prose, ha); therefore, I am going to show you the scene that nearly killed me.
“Prague is a cliche now?” Self-congratulatory Kafka references? “Selfish girl abandons helpless boy?” AUGH, WHY DOES SHE HAVE A NOTEBOOK. WHY ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT “MATERIAL.” Did someone accidentally film a community college production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE. I HATE THEM.
And it just continues along these lines: the movie’s lead characters are the sort of guys who build entire conversations around statements like, “if Plato is like a good red wine, then Aristotle is a dry martini” (NO. FALSE. BAD), or trivia games in which they challenge each other to name five empiricist philosophers and/or movies with monkeys in lead roles, or an interest in the plots of detergent commercials. Not that they are actually interested in the plots of detergent commercials; that would be stupid. No, it’s more like they are pretending to be interested in the plots of detergent commercials, which would be stupid, in order to show that they are not interested in the commercials, because they are not stupid, so they need to talk about the commercials, in order to… oh, whatever. I give up. SHUT UP, MALE LEADS OF KICKING AND SCREAMING.
The thing is: you know dudes like this. At least, I have known dudes like this; shit, I might have even been a dude like this at one point (except, you know: a lady version). This kind of pretension, and arrogance, and aristocratic disdain for the world at large is, to any objective observer, very clearly the result of raging insecurity and perhaps one too many wedgies in high school; nevertheless, every kid who’s ever considered himself “smart” has fallen into it. SAY, who wants to see a movie about how much you sucked?
The four leads of Kicking and Screaming (their names are Skippy, Max, Grover, and Otis; they are all youngish, tallish, thinnish white men with dark hair and identical-sounding dialogue, and they are, for this reason, difficult to tell apart – which I think is part of the point) are not only far too sure of their own talents, they have each other, and are willing to spend countless hours giving each other verbal hand-jobs of congratulation re: how special they are. They are a terrible four-headed hydra-beast of pretension, stilted dialogue (at first, you think the actors are terrible: then you realize that they are geniuses, because twenty-one-year-olds who try to talk like this sound just this awkward), and privileged white male ennui, and as long as they have each other, there will be no reason for them to ever change.
The boys move into an apartment near campus together, where they watch TV and pretend to have read books. They venture out only to go to the bar, where they are confronted by the grim spectre of their future, Chet. Chet is played by Eric Stoltz, and he is hilarious: a dude who has been in college for ten years, “working on his dissertation,” hitting on undergraduates, and tending bar. He’s the one who says the thing about Aristotle and Plato; Stoltz gets a ton of mileage out of his airy, lah-di-da inflections when referring to the latest “tome” of the eternal dissertation, or describing Cormac MacCarthy as “arousing.”
None of the members of the Skippy/Otis/Grover/Max collective like Chet, which is unfortunate, given the fact that they’re about to become him: Otis turns down grad school to work in a video store, Skippy re-enrolls in college so that he can take all the courses he missed, Max is reduced to getting his daily fix of intellectual superiority from crosswords, most of the boys appear to be entirely unemployed, and all of them are busy targeting and fucking undergraduate girls – or, in Max’s case, a cafeteria worker, who is sixteen years old. Yeah. Sit with that one for a while.
At this point, the superficial similarities to the bromosocial world of Apatow should be apparent. (Although, to be fair, Apatow’s man-boys are gleefully, self-approvingly dim and childish, not men who pretend to be intelligent in order to forget how childish they are.) You’ve got your arrested development; your tightly knit band of bros; your contempt for and exclusion of the lady-folk. It’s all there. So, it’s time to talk about the differences.
In any other movie, we would be meant to like Max, and Grover, and Skippy, and Otis unequivocally. Their hermetically sealed little world of boy-on-boy bonding would be idealized. Fortunately – nay, gloriously! – Baumbach never forces us to love these guys: he makes it clear, throughout the picture, that they are windbags, douches, and losers, who nevertheless get off a few good lines. Their aimlessness isn’t freedom; it’s failure. Their privilege isn’t ignored. (There is a specific class of people who get to complain about how “overrated” Prague is, and that is the class that gets to tool around Europe directly after receiving a pricey liberal arts college education. Fuckers.) Their grand artistic ambitions – which Grover, at least, has and talks about – are never realized. And their misogyny: well.
The undergraduate girls are a given, right? The undergraduates, the freshmen, the teenaged cafeteria workers: these guys are busy convincing themselves that they are the smartest dudes on the planet, and the one thing that dudes like this can never do is date women who are as smart or smarter than they are. (This is – sorry to be rude, guys – a very specifically male thing; smart and/or pretentious women, from what I can see, tend to go for smart guys, maybe just because they’re sick of the dumb ones feeling all emasculated by their giant, man-like brains.) So they seek out girls to whom they can easily feel superior; if they get past the first fuck and into an actual relationship, they make a point of belittling their girlfriends, frequently and publicly, to remind them that they will never be quite as important or central as the bro-bond, and definitely not serious competitors in the Who Is Today’s Smartest Person game.
And, I know this is running long, but I have to go into detail here, because this movie is really unparalleled in depicting the little atrocities that dudes like this tend to inflict on ladykind: When the movie opens, one of the girlfriends (Parker Posey, hurrah) is trying to participate in the trivia game. Her boyfriend, Skippy, berates her for not saying “ding” before she answers, and tells her, to her face, in front of everyone, that this game is “not for her.” When the cafeteria worker, Kate, tries to take part in the game later, Skippy once again displays his sparkling personality by telling her to “excuse herself” so that the men can talk. Grover stays on the phone during the early portion of a hookup, and signs off with, “got to go sleep with this freshman,” and Max greets his about-to-be girlfriend, whom he has actually met before (back when Grover was trying to fuck her) with, “oh, right: you’re the girl.”
Um, yes! I am a girl! Glad to see you noticed that! And not, you know, my name. Or ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT ME.
Yet these girls – Parker Posey, and Kate, and Jane, who kicks off the movie by “abandoning” Grover, and returns in many flashbacks, which are unfortunate, for I cannot stand her – aren’t cheated by the narrative. They’re not hollow sluts, or supernaturally competent saviors, or one-dimensional bitches (though Posey, for the record, pulls off a spectacular Bitch Move that effectively annihilates the group dynamic – which would seem to be her intention; go to 5:42 of this clip for her beautiful and “ding”-centric revenge). They are, for the most part, precisely as fucked-up and adolescent as the boys are. (For example: in a neat little twist, it’s revealed that Grover has stolen most of his affectations, and his lifestyle, from Jane. I knew there was a reason not to like that girl!) (Oh, OK. I’m sorry, Jane. I only hate you because I HATE MYSELF. PUT DOWN YOUR NOTEBOOK, YOU IDIOT.) However, the women are also the only characters in the movie who seem to get how irritating and regressive the M/S/G/O Dude Collective is. They’re the ones who point out – and all three of them, at some point, point this out – that the guys all speak alike. Also, that what they have to say is meaningless.
So, by the time the boys get around to hating themselves and each other, and lamenting their “affectations that harden into habits,” they’ve really only arrived at the place where the women have been all along. The question of whether you see redemption in the end of this movie, or on the horizon of these characters, is a tricky one: the person who recommended the movie to me thinks that they do grow up, whereas I’m of the opinion that, if they do, it’s a boring, dishonest Apatovian (proto-Apatovian?) ending. Oh, look! They’ve learned the error of their ways! All is forgiven! Etc. Fortunately, they don’t so much grow up as burn out: by the time the film ends, they know that they need new lives, but only because the lives they currently lead have become unbearable. None of them really seems to know what to do next. If they ever find out, we don’t see that. It’s better that way.
Because then, there is the final scene: the scene in which Grover decides to change his life! And go to Prague! To find Jane! He rushes straight to the airport terminal, and gives a speech. You’ve heard this speech before. It’s in every movie: he must take a chance, he must go with his heart, he must – must – learn from his mistakes and become a better man, the sort of man who would go to Prague. FOR ONCE IN HIS LIFE, he must DO SOMETHING SPONTANEOUS. The woman at the counter is moved nearly to tears, and miraculously finds him a seat on the (full) airplane. Then she asks for his passport.