Will Ferrell deserves most of the credit for being one of the few recent Saturday Night Live grads who's managed to translate a talent that's funny as free entertainment on Saturday night into material that's attractive to paying customers. It's hard to pin down what makes him work; mostly, it seems to be his willingness to throw himself into a role without looking back, whether he's playing a '70s newscaster or the cowbell player for Blue Öyster Cult. But smart choices have something to do with it, too. Not everything that Ferrell's done since SNL has been brilliant, but it hasn't been Corky Romano, either. So consider Kicking & Screaming a product from an alternate universe, the sort of movie Ferrell would make all the time if he didn't have the smarts to co-write Anchorman or steal Old School.
An underdogs-make-good kids' sports movie in the Bad News Bears mold—but without a fraction of Bears' bite—Kicking & Screaming is a sweet, inoffensive, achingly laughless comedy about a hapless soccer team whom Ferrell coaches to the playoffs. Ferrell's mild-mannered vitamin peddler makes for a reluctant hero; he takes on the coaching job only when his son is traded off a team coached by Ferrell's hyper-competitive dad (Robert Duvall, all but reviving Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now). Ferrell struggles at first, but then happens on some secret weapons: Duvall's pissed-off neighbor Mike Ditka (playing Mike Ditka, in an effective bit of stunt-casting) and a pair of Italian brothers with unbelievable skills. (Think prepubescent Hanson Brothers, but with accents and without the bad attitude.)
This isn't the worst setup for a kiddie comedy, but it proves that Ferrell alone can't carry a film. He has some fun with a mounting coffee addiction, but the joke feels tacked-on the first time it pops up, and completely exhausted by the time a small child starts kicking the crap out of a cappuccino machine. Cute kid, though. And the film seems mostly aimed at kids, who probably won't notice that everyone from Ferrell to Duvall to director Jesse Dylan (who helmed the superior stoner comedy How High) should be trying a little harder. Anyone automatically in stitches at the thought of worm-eating, however, should start lining up now.