In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Once something has turned into a cliché, only two respectable options remain: (1) avoid it, or (2) make fun of it. Take, for example, the romcom’s climactic race to the airport, in which one of the lovers—usually the man, but not always—realizes his error at the last minute and rushes to stop Ms. Right before she flies out of his life forever. Using this unironically amounts to an admission of creative bankruptcy, even if there’s some ostensible twist involved (e.g. Rachel gets on the plane anyway, but then it turns out that she got off after poor heartbroken Ross left). It’s been used so many times, in fact, that when I Googled around for examples, I found several long lists with only a handful of repeat titles among them. And yet there doesn’t really seem to be a canonical example—the original, sublime version that everyone is striving to replicate. (The Graduate, maybe, but that climactic race involves a wedding, not an airport.) It’s a reliably cheesy device that has seemingly just been around since the dawn of cinema, sucking.
It has worked on me once, I must admit. Technically, Noah Baumbach’s first film, Kicking And Screaming, doesn’t quite fit the formula, since the protagonist dashes to the airport at the end in order to catch a plane rather than to prevent someone from boarding it. (Also, he was at the airport anyway, dropping off a friend, so it’s a pretty short run.) The romantic impulse is basically identical, though, even if Baumbach—who was all of 26 years old at the time of the movie’s release in 1995—opts to expose the grand gesture’s bittersweet aftertaste. In the opening scene, Grover (Josh Hamilton) learns that his girlfriend, Jane (Olivia D’Abo), has been accepted to some sort of post-graduate writing program in Prague; she invites him to accompany her, but he declines, and most of Kicking And Screaming, true to its title, depicts months of stasis as he and his college buddies postpone getting on with their lives. Only in the final minutes does Grover realize, in time-honored tradition, that he’s been a self-absorbed bonehead, at which point he makes an impulsive decision to fix everything by flying to Prague. It doesn’t quite work out.
This scene actually combines oddball variations on two romcom tropes, even though Kicking And Screaming isn’t really a romantic comedy. (After the opening scene, Jane spends the entire movie in Prague, heard on answering-machine messages—it was the ’90s—and seen in intermittent flashbacks that show how she and Grover met.) In addition to arriving at the airport to save his relationship, Grover delivers a long, ardent monologue, the kind that would be immortalized just one year later by the reply “You had me at hello.” Except he doesn’t ever actually directly say that he loves Jane, or that he was a fool to let her head off to Europe while he sat around Brooklyn trading quips and playing fake game shows with his equally aimless friends. More crucially, he gives this uncharacteristically sincere speech not to Jane herself, but to Rana (per her nametag), the stranger working behind the ticket counter. (Friends fans will recognize Jessica Hecht from her recurring role as Susan, the woman who married Ross’ first ex-wife; she also recently played Gray Matter co-owner Gretchen Schwartz on Breaking Bad.) One could argue that he’s able to say these things out loud precisely because his listener is not Jane, though I suspect Baumbach very consciously chose to make this random airport employee female rather than male.
Part of what appeals to me about Grover’s speech is the way that it acknowledges the airport change of heart as a complete fantasy. Baumbach makes a halfhearted attempt to create a plausible airport (though it looks to me like he shot the scene in some bureaucratic waiting room), and he does provide one extra who’s finishing up her transaction as Grover runs into view. But that’s it. There’s no queue of impatient people standing behind Grover, insisting that he shut the fuck up, though this is ostensibly one of the New York metro area’s three gigantic airports (JFK, LaGuardia, Newark). Even if the planets all aligned and you somehow managed to hit the ticket counter at low tide, there’s no way in hell the functionary behind it is gonna stand still for your rambling, unfocused cri de coeur. Hamilton tosses in a brief pause here and there, giving even the world’s politest wage slave multiple opportunities to cut him off, but Rana listens sympathetically to the whole speech, and then finds Grover a seat on the shuttle she’d claimed was fully booked. (That last part is not so unbelievable, frankly.) The artificiality could hardly be more blatant.
And then it all comes thudding back to reality, because Grover, who hadn’t planned to fly to Europe today, doesn’t have his passport on him. This minor subversion of the formula isn’t that remarkable in and of itself—there are other examples (including the aforementioned Friends finale) in which the last-minute dasher’s plan at least appears to fail, and probably some instances I’m unaware of in which it actually does fail. What breaks my heart, every time, is Grover’s reaction to Rana’s obvious, kindly suggestion: “You can always go tomorrow.” Kicking And Screaming is so thoroughly dialogue-driven that Criterion’s box art is just a bunch of the film’s most memorable lines (“I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday”; “You have two emotions, antsy and testy”; “Is that a pajama top?”), but Hamilton manages to convey, without a single word, Grover’s rueful self-knowledge regarding what was about to be the defining moment of his young life. He won’t go to Prague tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or next week. He won’t ever go to Prague. He stumbled into a tiny, fleeting window of opportunity, and now that it’s been closed on him, he’ll never work up the requisite courage and recklessness again. It’s amazing how unmistakable Hamilton makes this, even as Grover eventually smiles and says “Yeah” in the most convincing tone he can muster.
One of the minor drawbacks of writing this column—which requires me to watch some of my favorite movie scenes over and over and over, scrutinizing them carefully—is that I see mistakes I’d probably never have noticed otherwise. Baumbach isn’t a great stylist, but he does think visually, especially considering how talky his films tend to be. And he makes an inspired choice near the end of the scene, holding on Rana after she asks Grover for his passport; her expression as she looks up from the terminal makes the situation abundantly clear, and playing that moment off her reaction rather than his works beautifully. Or it would, except that for some reason, the shot of Hamiltion that immediately follows has him looking up in alarm, as if just registering that he’s screwed. That look should already have happened offscreen, or Rana’s reaction makes no sense. This is a weird glitch, because it’s as not as if Baumbach and his editor, J. Kathleen Gibson (who’s mostly worked in television since, though Baumbach used her again on Mr. Jealousy), didn’t have the necessary footage. All they needed to do was cut Grover looking up. It’s as if they didn’t trust the audience to get it without that extra nudge, which is disappointing.
Still, that’s an extremely nitpicky quibble—something I’d never caught in five previous viewings. (Kicking And Screaming has superb replay value.) Overall, this is the only climactic grand gesture set at an airport that doesn’t have me rooting for security to show up and put a stop to it. Baumbach takes one of the hoariest romantic clichés around and transforms it into an ineffably sad admission of defeat (and then ends the movie, one scene later, on a correspondingly happy flashback that’s imbued with this scene’s sadness). Not bad for someone barely out of college himself in his first time at bat. This kid is going places.