One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: School’s out for summer. Celebrate the end of a semester (or just the release of Neighbors 2) with these unconventional campus comedies.
Technically speaking, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming takes place mostly after the college party is over; it opens on a graduation soirée and proceeds to follow a group of friends during their first post-grad year. But these ex-students don’t get very far. Otis (Carlos Jacott) moves back in with his mother while Max (Chris Eigeman) and Grover (Josh Hamilton) continue renting out the same house where they lived as students. Some of them manage to find dead-end jobs (“I do nothing,” Max says to himself, practicing introductions in the mirror). All of them live in a stasis of fearful self-loathing (and occasional each-other-loathing). But they’re all still close enough to campus to hit up dorm parties, spend time at the designated undergrad-hangout bar, and sometimes even eat at the school cafeteria.
This allows Baumbach, who based the film partially on his experiences at Vassar, to capture the feel of a small liberal arts campus even as his characters’ presence there is ghostly, borderline pathetic. And while Kicking And Screaming isn’t a comedy about campus hijinks, per se, it is deeply, wonderfully funny. Baumbach has since grown more sophisticated as a director, but the dialogue in this, his first film, remains some of his best and most quotable. Some of consists of solid one-liners (“What I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life”). Some of it depends on the actors’ inflection, like the admonishing way Parker Posey’s character tells her boyfriend, as he’s helping her move in for her senior year, “I use that fan all the time. All the time.” And some of it is so offhand that the movie only captures fragments of a mostly-offscreen conversation (“I’ll tell you the worst thing about losing a foot…”). Put together, this is one of the great dialogue comedies, with far more verbal acuity than most movies about campus life—or most movies, period.
But it’s not just a movie with funny banter. Baumbach uses flashbacks showing the development of the senior-year relationship between Grover and Jane (Olivia D’Abo) to form a bittersweet emotional core. These scenes also cover even more material usually overlooked by broader campus comedies, like the spot-on glimpses into Grover and Jane’s shared fiction workshop. Hamilton and D’Abo are both understated and terrific here, as are the character actors who served as Baumbach’s rep company during the first phase of his career: Eigeman, unsmiling and hostile; the hilarious Jacott, all self-aware neuroses; and obligatory ’90s indie mascot Eric Stoltz as Chet, the bartender who’s still working on his thesis and maintaining an encyclopedic knowledge of classes and campus events. Without a tightly constructed plot, the movie has time for tiny masterpieces of comic vignettes, like the meeting of an ill-fated book club formed by Chet and Otis.
Movies about post-grad ennui have become almost a cottage industry in the years since Kicking And Screaming’s release, as fewer and fewer college students make a seamless transition into a solid career. Baumbach himself would revisit the netherworld between adolescence and grown-up life with Frances Ha. His gift for turning twentysomething bumbling into comic poetry was evident from the start.
Availability: Kicking And Screaming is available on Criterion DVD from Netflix, or your local (or campus) video store/library. It’s also available to rent or purchase from the major digital outlets.