Criterion Clues: Kicking Obsessive Finds Truths on DVD

Oh, I’ve been to Prague.

It was 1999, and I stood on the Charles Bridge and went to one of Kafka’s houses and drank the coffee and the beer (both of which were better over there, truly). And I thought it would cure me of my obsession with the movie Kicking & Screaming, Noah Baumbach’s first film, released in 1995. I thought I would be vaccinated in the truest sense—given a gluttony of the very thing I hoped to avoid. It didn’t work.

When the Criterion Collection released the film on DVD last year, I tried again. I watched it over and over. In the end, all it got me was my VCR in the trash. The VHS-only version of Kicking & Screaming was the only reason I had held onto it for so long.

I wish there were something or someone—an empiricist philosopher, a great short novelist—that I quoted more. But it’s a movie that permeates my conversations. And I’m not alone. In fact, I would be remiss in continuing here without mentioning Matt Feeney’s 2005 piece for Slate, in which he used the release of The Squid and the Whale to herald Mr. Baumbach’s unapologetically emotional early work (Mr. Jealousy and Kicking and Screaming). The difference, I suspect, between Mr. Feeney and myself is that I’m pretty sure he leads a functional life. I can barely make it though a week without referencing baked potatoes and TV weathermen.

First, let me explain the Prague thing. “Oh, I’ve been … ” is one of the more heavily quoted lines in this cult film, dropped at a college graduation party in which Jane (Olivia d’Abo) breaks up with her boyfriend, fellow aspiring writer Grover (Josh Hamilton). Jane is the one who goes off to Prague (“Division One Bratislava,” mind you), but the line belongs to Grover—who has, of course, never been. He is left to sort out the perils of post-graduation life with his friends. One of them re-enrolls in college; another lives with his mother and gets a job at Video Planet. If a “plot” is the driving force behind a sequence of events, Kicking and Screaming doesn’t have much of an engine. At one point, Grover’s friend Max (Chris Eigeman) says, on a stroll across campus: “I caught myself writing ‘Go to bed’ and ‘Wake up’ in my date book as if they were two separate events.” That’s pretty much the whole scene.

But it’s not the whole story; Kicking and Screaming extends far beyond the screen for me. I owe it a debt of thanks for some of my great relationships—two friendships, two romances. As long as you graduated from college, the movie is easy to mine for insights that might otherwise take multiple dates to stumble upon. If I’m lucky enough to find someone who loves the film as much as I do, it acts as a kind of shorthand. One of these people just bought me a bag of black-eyed peas for my birthday. This was touching. On the other hand, I once gathered a small group of friends to watch the movie; no one was in the mood to concentrate on nuanced dialogue, and they talked through the whole thing. I no longer speak to these people.

Actually, everyone has a movie or two that they feel this way toward, or should. So what makes Kicking and Screaming so cultish? It’s conceivable, when watching even the most precious of our precious movies—The Royal Tenenbaums, Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine—to skate along the surface of things, to revel in the randomness throughout and the hope provided at the end. Kicking and Screaming, however, is mercilessly melancholy. Basically, it feels real. It’s also unlike the much-loved Whit Stillman films that it’s more closely related to (Barcelona, Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) in that it’s relentlessly fixated on minutiae. There’s always something extraordinarily average to incorporate into one’s daily life.

This is a film which taught me how to return beer if there’s food in it. How to parallel-park. How to show up drunk to therapy. How to sleep with a freshman. It unwittingly holds the answers to a lot of life’s little questions just at it claims to have none. Career: “What I used to pass off as just another bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life.” Extracurricular activities: “Perhaps we should disband the club now before feelings get hurt.” Book reviewing: “The scene with the carrot peeler really resonated.” Sex: “I’d like to fuck her on the tennis court, if you get my meaning.” Racial relations and/or inept figures of speech: “Racism spans from here to the dance floor!” Parental relations: “Isn’t it bad enough to be whipped by your own mother, you have to have this wussy relationship with Grover’s?” Staying in for the night: “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back at it in my memory and I didn’t have a good time.”

The Web site Overheard in New York arguably owes its existence to Kicking and Screaming. In fact, the first real line of the movie takes place at the graduation party, when someone practically off-camera says, “I think violence is always justified some of the time.” The closest I ever got to something that good was walking up Sixth Avenue past St. Vincent’s one night: “And I said, ‘I don’t know what that thing is, but it’s not touching my head unless you unplug it.’”

I still plan on holding onto my VHS version of Kicking and Screaming. I’m not exactly sure why, but the uncertainty seems in line with the themes of the movie.

I had another small viewing party when the DVD came out—this time at my apartment and for a carefully chosen audience. Because you can literally see more of the movie on the new edition, it changes slightly. In one scene on the VHS edition, there’s a poster in the background with half a cookie on it. There is writing beneath the cookie, but it’s been impossible to read for over a decade. If this was Napoleon Dynamite, it might have said: “Cookies Are Awesome.” If this was Lost in Translation, it might have said: “Be Happy.” In Kicking and Screaming, it reads: “Pro-Life?”

On the new DVD edition, there’s an interview that Mr. Baumbach does with Mr. Eigeman, who speaks of having dinner at a restaurant when some fan slips him a note that says “Broken Glass,” a joke from the movie. But the actor diagnoses this experience positively: He sees it not as the odd behavior of a clinging fan, but as a subtle tip of the hat to an old project that still has a lot of meaning for a lot of people. I was relieved. He could have easily gone in the other direction. After all, it’s bad enough that I’m whipped by my own life, now I have to have this wussy relationship with theirs as well.