In a way, Kicking and Screaming reminds me of the kind of movies often made fun of on Mystery Science Theater 3000: it’s hilarious at all the wrong times. Sure there are a couple small chuckles to be honestly had in the course of this family sports comedy, but it’s the ludicrous plot points all along the way that had me in stitches.
I won’t ever bother with a traditional spoiler warning here, as the film’s final plot points don’t deserve even that modicum of dignifying. Will Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a loser suffering through an abusive relationship with his father (a cinematically slumming Robert Duvall) who always bests him at everything he does. Phil’s father “trades” his grandson to another kids’ soccer team (which I wasn’t aware could be done) and when no one else volunteers to coach this other, mysteriously coachless team (apparently every other parent would rather forfeit their games) Phil steps in. So will this reluctant coach end up taking his team of ragtag misfits to the Finals and beat his father’s impressive team? Of course he will. You should know that before you even set foot in the theater. What counts is the journey–how the kids get better and their coach finds his purpose. That’s the heart and soul of every underdog sports movie. It would have been nice if Kicking and Screaming had anything like that. Instead we get Phil telling the kids at the final game–you ready for this?–“do the opposite of what I told you before.” Suddenly, every loser on the team starts pulling tricks out of their back pockets while Phil’s dad’s team seems to freeze dumbstruck. After that quick and easy, last-minute “save,” which I have no doubt took the screenwriters all of ten seconds to come up with, suddenly characters start making 180 degree turns out of nowhere with absolutely no regard for anything that they did before. Phil gets some seemingly heartfelt admiration for his coaching abilities (“do the opposite of what I told you before” must really sound like brilliant coaching to some people), his dad hands over the prized soccer ball he initially stole from his son and Phil hands it back out of, oh, let’s guess respect or something like that. The scene is a crack-up, much funnier than Phil’s dad playfully kicking a small child into the pool or Phil attempting to cut a side of beef with a chainsaw.
Okay, so the story is pathetic. But it’s gotta be funny, right? Some movies have a lame plot that’s really just an excuse to cram a whole lotta comedy onto the screen (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Jerk). But that’s not Kicking and Screaming. When Will Ferrell is good, he’s very good (Elf, Anchorman). When Will Ferrell is bad, he’s very bad (Wake Up, Ron Burgundy, Superstar). In Kicking and Screaming he’s somewhere in between, but far closer to the latter. Neither Ferrell nor anyone else really seems to be trying very hard at all in this film. The only honest chuckles I got were from a few of the kids and their antics early on, but even they lost steam rapidly. There’s an adorable Asian kid called Byong Sun (played by Elliott Cho) who steals the show early on by playing with a cup on his knee in a manner which really must be witnessed to be appreciated (thankfully it’s in the trailer so you won’t have to sit through the movie itself to see it). It’s very cute and I can just picture test audiences writing on their comment cards, “We want more Byong Sun!” This becomes nakedly apparent whenever the kids are shown and the filmmakers go out of their way to single out Byong Sun over and over again. When Phil kicks over his Cappuccino machine (to cap off a bizarre, go-nowhere side plot about coffee addiction), Byong Sun follows him to get in a good kick as well for no real reason.
It’s obvious the writers hardly put any work into this (take the film’s opening line for example: “I was born a baby.”), but even the directing kicks and screams of boredom. Scenes are staged as if they were being shot for a sitcom. The editing is frantic and disjointed at many points, a true tell-tale sign that they had very little that was good to work with.
To get his team’s star players back from their jobs working in their father’s butcher shop, Phil recruits his entire team to help out with their duties. How forcing these little kids to butcher dead animals, a task which leaves them totally covered in blood, manages not to deeply affect or scar a single one of these highly impressionable youths is beyond me. But that’s just the kind of lazy, not-thought-out writing you’ll find throughout Kicking and Screaming, a film that doesn’t show much effort at all. I prefer to see a little more hustle in my sports films. Kicking and Screaming is a big-time bench warmer. The only people I can picture enjoying it are young kids who are themselves currently on soccer teams. They’ll no doubt quote its half-assed lines during practice, act out some of the more goofy behavior or say things like, “remember that time when Will Ferrell got hit in the balls?” For the rest of us, Kicking and Screaming is merely an enormously light and fluffy utter waste of time.