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Highly Judgmental (Yet Positive!) Movie Reviews PRESENTS: Kicking and Screaming

This weekend, a strange and wonderful thing happened. I saw a movie! Okay, that is not the strange and wonderful thing. The strange and wonderful thing was that this movie, which I saw, was about a group of close male friends, all of whom treat girls like crap, are under-employed and lazy, and refuse to engage in anything which might even vaguely resemble grown adult male behavior.

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.

Whoops.

16 Comments

  1. Chex wrote:

    “[S]mart and/or pretentious women, from what I can see, tend to go for smart guys.”

    I have to disagree with you here, Sady, because two of the smartest women I’ve known (both of whom I had crushes on, and one of whom, during my self-destructive, bad-decision-making phase, I drunkenly made out with in a treehouse with another girl at a party while male party-goers jostled for space on the ladder to watch, ugh) did exactly the kind of “male” shit you’re talking about with their boyfriends.

    One of them (not the treehouse one) rode a motorcycle, and more or less stated outright that she was only with her boyfriend because he was good-looking and also rode a motorcycle. She frequently referred to him as arm-candy, at least once in front of him. The other girl used to attend a game night with me to which she brought her beau (this was a year or so after the treehouse incident, which I still feel gross about to this day, can you tell?) and she mercilessly teased him about his inferior intelligence.

    I’d like to think if I met these two today I would be like, “You shouldn’t treat people like that. I am unimpressed by your pretension, which is clearly the result of insecurity,” but at the time it was more like, “Oh, you are so wise and wonderful! Please may I bask in the light of your knowledge and wit, and also ride on the back of your motorcycle?”

    Of course, I see smart and/or pretentious men choose airhead-acting women for the sole purpose of picking on them all the time. I’m just saying some women do it, too.

    And even though I’m a smart and/or pretentious woman, I’ve met many dudes who thought they were smarter than everyone else, including me. And fallen for it. And ended up in relationships where I was never smart enough (or cool enough, or nerdy enough, or, and this really makes me cringe now that I’ve left the church, knowledgeable enough about the Bible) to actually meaningfully contribute to the conversation. There are so many guys like the one my friend told me about the other night: “That was almost a good point, but let me tell you why you’re wrong.”

    Also, Sady, you are so wise and wonderful, and I am delighted to bask in the light of your knowledge and wit.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  2. amanda wrote:

    I’m a big fan of this movie. I saw it on a really worn out VHS tape but it didn’t matter.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  3. Other Ashley wrote:

    @ Chex
    My sister, who is a member of Mensa (no shit), nearly married a man who was clearly beneath her in intelligence. He treated her like trash and let her know at every opportunity that he resented her success and ability. It was only after this behavior was repeatedly pointed out to her that she saw the light and dumped his ass.

    I guess the difference between her and the type of women Sady is talking about might be low self esteem or the result of receiving the constant cultural message that she must consistently conceal and downplay her own intelligence in order to be acceptable to men, even underachieving men.

    However, there is a form of pretension that idolizes the dude with a motorcycle and garage band instead of the dude with a Kafka references.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  4. Kelly wrote:

    can we have a sleepover where we watch this movie and wickerman? also, when I read the title I thought you were reviewing the will ferrel movie about coaching soccer and I was really wondering how you were going to pull it off.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  5. Sady wrote:

    @Chex & Ashley: Yeah, Chex's point is a really good one. There ARE some girls who do that "I keep my partner around to kick around, which makes me feel awesome by comparison" thing. I think my point in that paragraph was muddled, actually. (Maybe the whole REVIEW is muddled? I did write it at 3 AM!)

    I guess where I am heading, with the gender politics in that line, is a very specific and tricky point: historically, men have been applauded for their intellect, and encouraged to believe that they will be the smarter/more successful/more powerful member of a (heterosexual!) relationship. Women have been applauded for applauding men, and encouraged to admire the intelligence/success/power of their partners. It's that whole second-wave point about how lots of girls who wanted to be writers, or painters, or lawyers, ended up being the wives of writers, or painters, or lawyers instead.

    How this works out, drawing from my personal experience and the dynamics I've seen in friends' relationships, is so: when women meet dudes that are accomplished, or smart, or interesting, they're typically pretty happy. I know a lot of girls who just won't date a dude unless they think he's as succesful/creative/smart as they are, if not more so. On the OTHER hand, I have known plenty of dudes to get all insecure and castration-phobic if their girlfriends are particularly smart and talented, and, when they find out a girl is good at something, they start negging her and being cruel and diminishing her accomplishments: if everyone tells your girlfriend she's good at something, but you tell her she's shit, then you have the position of power, because you're smart enough to know how shit her talents are. In the absence of the power a greater accomplishment provides, they try to get the power that comes from being critics – so, that way, no matter how much validation she gets from the world, YOU'RE the one that matters, and whose approval you will try to make her seek. It's an ugly thing.

    (Like: in this movie? Jane wins a fiction contest, not Grover, because he didn't enter. And then when they hang out, she has to tell him that he WOULD have won, or at least "made it interesting." Which is such a shitty thing to say about yourself. YOU WON, JANE. DON'T PLAY IT DOWN TO GET LAID. YOU. FUCKING. WON. NO APOLOGY NECESSARY. God, I have problems with her.)

    Although: maybe there's a generational thing? And there are more dudes out there who can handle smart ladies now, given the fact that they've grown up with more (though probably not enough) examples of talented, successful women? And also, more smart ladies who act like dicks?

    Ah, progress.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  6. snobographer wrote:

    I’ve dated lots of very stupid guys who believed they were smarter than me – or at least asserted that they were smarter than me, despite their being egregiously uninformed on a wide variety of subjects. One guy who actually said his I.Q. was “off the charts” (Me: “Einstein’s I.Q. was measurable. Are you saying you’re smarter than Einstein?” Him: “shut up”) called me a “racist” for trying to explain to him that Jews aren’t Christians.

    I watched this movie way back when it came out on VHS. I’m going to have to give it another gander. I think the first time I watched it I did a lot of bong hits and, to my addled brain, it sounded like another Wilt Stillman rip-off, so I didn’t pay close enough attention to what was really going on. I do remember that Parker Posey take-down though, when I watched that YouTube clip. That was immensely gratifying.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  7. Victoria wrote:

    If you’re not burnt out on movie reviews yet, I’d really like to hear your take on Takashi Miike’s ‘Audition.’ Also, your blog may very well be my new favorite thing on the internet.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  8. Sady wrote:

    Also, @Chex? Let’s be besties. We can ride on motorcycles! HA, no, we can’t, for I would crash and die.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Tom wrote:

    Ah, twenty-something male insecurity. Truly a sad thing.

    “Although: maybe there’s a generational thing? And there are more dudes out there who can handle smart ladies now, given the fact that they’ve grown up with more (though probably not enough) examples of talented, successful women? And also, more smart ladies who act like dicks?”

    I’ve been dating my girlfriend for close to 18 months now. One of the most attractive things about her is that she’s really, really smart. This is not difficult for me to handle, in fact, it’s awesome.

    “It’s that whole second-wave point about how lots of girls who wanted to be writers, or painters, or lawyers, ended up being the wives of writers, or painters, or lawyers instead.”

    When I read that, all I could think of was the time my mom told me why she went to law school and became a prosecutor:

    “Well, basically I decided that I didn’t want to be someone’s secretary for the rest of my life.”

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  10. Chex wrote:

    “Although: maybe there’s a generational thing?”

    I met Ms. Programming Genius/Motorcycle Goddess when I first went to college in 2001. Maybe we were still in some kind of nineties joyful orgasm of pre-backlash, equal-opportunity assholedom. It was (just slightly) before 9/11, after all, when the world was a much better place.

    It could also just be that I’m in a weird field (video games) that only a certain type of woman tries to get into (and very few women, at that: there were 10 of us in my graduating class of 160 at DigiTech InstiPen of Tutenology), so the few women friends I do have are more likely to have spent their whole lives trying to out-dude dudes, hence the acting like dicks.

    There’s actually this really sad thing that happens sometimes in the games industry wherein a ladytype person simultaneously empornulates herself and engages in aggressive pissing contestology to prove that she’s the manliest, sexiest fucking genius badass the world has ever known, and she can do it in six inch heels, goddamnit, so you should worship her, or at least accept her! Please? I’m sure that happens in other male-dominated fields, as well. That was the story of my life until more recently than I’d like to admit.

    Blah blah blah, I am talking.

    You know what, Sady? Let’s ride internet motorcycles all over the internet. It’ll be great.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  11. Sady wrote:

    @Snobographer: For some reason, this excerpt of your conversation (including your boyfriend’s GENIUS rebuttal – how could we ever have doubted his chart-busting IQ?) made me laugh for about five minutes.

    @Tom: Well, we’ve already established that you’re cool. SO cool, in fact, that you have a Bizarro counterpart that is PURE EVIL!

    It’s a weird thing, actually: this generational thing. (And I realize that I don’t know how old you are – you could be the world’s coolest 903-year-old dude!) I think you could argue that, for folks of my mom’s generation, misogyny was, if not more pervasive, then more outspoken and blatant. Folks who were born after the second wave of feminism was well underway (I’m just going to say mid-70′s through, um, now: it was around in the ’60s, but was PERVASIVE and widely felt by that point) have always heard the word “sexist,” and known that it was widely regarded to be a bad thing. YET, they’ve also grown up with the backlash, and its ideology, so you’ve got this whole generation of dudes (and we can focus on what this has done to the women – later! Not in this long-ass comment!) receiving messages that (a) being prejudiced about women is bad, but also (b) what they’re doing isn’t ACTUALLY prejudice towards women, chicks need to lighten up, because (c) even if it WERE prejudice towards women, it would be fun, and they would deserve that fun, because chicks run fucking EVERYTHING nowadays.

    So! Identifying misogyny in interpersonal relationships, in this generation, is hard and weird and depends on your ability or willingness to parse a lot of gray areas. Because most dudes won’t come out and say clearly anti-feminist stuff, but you’ve also got bro culture/MAXIM culture, hipster racism/sexism, the marginalization of women in intellectual and artistic circles, etc. And they won’t say, “we have a problem with you because you’re a girl.” They’ll say, “we have a problem with you because you’re too earnest/too feminist/no fun.” But that boils down to you, basically, being a girl, and not putting up with sexism.

    ANYWAY. Thanks for letting me write (another) novel at you, Tom!

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  12. Eleniel wrote:

    @Chex That’s not surprising, considering the video game industry seems more immature and male-dominated than most other technology fields. It’s enough to make me rethink wanting to make games professionally x.x;

    Although I have noticed the IGDA Women in Games SIG seems to have a lot more feminists than colluders (of the people that speak up, anyway). But then again, a group like Women in Games would attract more feminists than colluders, wouldn’t it…

    Also: “DigiTech InstiPen of Tutenology” lol!

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  13. snobographer wrote:

    “made me laugh for about five minutes”

    Considering how much funny you bring, that is a high honor indeedy. That exchange cracks me up in retrospect too.
    Some day I’ll tell you all about the guy who actually cried real tears because I corrected him on the nutritional content of peanut butter.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  14. Chex wrote:

    Glad you liked that, Eleniel.

    The games industry isn’t all bad. I know women who work at Her Interactive and Big Fish Games, for instance, who have never felt uncomfortable at work, or like their contributions were less valued, or like they had to be fifteen times better than everyone else to be seen as equal.

    It’s getting better. DigiPen (oh no, the secret is out!) has further to go than the industry at large; it is a hellhole. But even that venerable institution is making baby steps on the road to progress. Or trying. Or certain individuals within the organization are trying. I was there for many, many years (I’m a programmer! I’m an artist! Shit, I don’t want to be in this industry! Wait, I need to just get college over with already, fuck!), and I can’t even count the number of times it was like, “Oh, we’re improving! Wait, no we’re not.” The school’s higher ups recently rejected a proposal to form a GLBTA organization. Their reasoning had something to do with stirring up trouble, and some ridiculous fear of lawsuits. Really? Lawsuits? For HAVING such an organization?

    But it will never get better if you, personally, don’t go enter the games industry and become a martyr for the cause! No, just kidding. But if you do, and you end up in the greater Seattle area, we should hang out! And if I have a job by then I will totally put in a good word for you. :) Did I mention I just graduated and am, perhaps, slightly bitter, and also job-searching and have way too much time on my hands?

    @snobographer: No time like the present!

    @Sady: Sorry for leaving billions of really long comments on this one post. I’m used to 80+ hours of schoolwork per week. Too much time. On my hands.

    Tuesday, May 19, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  15. Helen wrote:

    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.Are these characters lifted from certain Australian or US (Corner, LGF) blogs?

    Saturday, May 23, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink
  16. zombietron wrote:

    God…my housemate is this – the guy pretending to be smart and sophisticated to forget about how dumb he is, he is 23 and has on numerous occasions brought home 16 year olds. He does vlogs on youtube and once did a video titled “Women are Important” – but spent the entire video talking about what he finds attractive in a woman. Because we are just body parts stuck together with no personality, obviously.
    He is moving out. I am replacing him with my pro-feminist male friend. I am so happy.
    This is my favourite blog on the entire internet. I am definitely going to watch this movie – it’ll be like rage-porn to me.

    Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 10:15 pm | Permalink