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Dustin Putman

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Kicking & Screaming (2005)
2 Stars

Directed by Jesse Dylan
Cast: Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall, Mike Ditka, Kate Walsh, Dylan McLaughlin, Rachael Harris, Laura Kightlinger, Musetta Vander, Steven Anthony Lawrence, Elliot Cho, Josh Hutcherson, Jeremy Bergman, Erik Walker, Dallas McKinney, Francesco Liotti, Alessandro Ruggiero, Sammy Fine, Timmy Deters, Dave Herman, Julia Campbell, Phill Lewis, Susan Barnes, Alex Borstein
2005 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for thematic elements, mild language and crude humor).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 10, 2005.

Soccer, although maybe not as popular or widespread as the big three—football, baseball and basketball—is still a cinematic subject tread often enough that it isn't exactly a novel idea. Besides, it doesn't really matter what the game is; nearly all sports pictures follow the same formula with the kind of loyalty one gives the team of their choice. "Kicking & Screaming," directed by Jesse Dylan (2003's "American Wedding") in workmanlike fashion, is no exception to this rule, presenting a ragtag team of young misfits who ultimately come into their own by the climactic championship game and prevail against adversity. The coach is an unlikely one—a non-athletic father named Phil Weston (Will Ferrell) who offers his services when no one else steps up—whose easygoing attitude soon turns cutthroat as he goes up against his extremely competitive father, Buck (Robert Duvall), the coach of the leading kid's soccer team.

The second or third paragraph of every review of mine is usually reserved for a general story synopsis, but there is nothing more to said story than has already been mentioned. "Kicking & Screaming," a PG-rated family comedy that straddles the line between the juvenile and mildly racy, adult humor, exists for no reason other than as a star vehicle for genius comedic actor Will Ferrell. Few scenes take place off the soccer field—the characters here, who could liberally be described as one-dimensional, don't seem to have lives outside of peewee soccer—and the biggest laughs seem to be those that were improvised by the actors. Ferrell is the king of this sort of off-the-cuff humor, creating a nicely acerbic rapport with his young co-stars (if nowhere near the level of 2003's "School of Rock") and shooting off a few zingers that one doubts were scripted.

The hit-to-miss ratio of jokes, sadly, is about 20-to-80, with the majority either pandering strictly to tiny audience members or so predictable (the whole ball-to-the-head humor was exhausted with 2004's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story") that they cease garnering laughs. There is a more gutsy, un-PC film clawing to get out of the PG confines of "Kicking & Screaming"—in his aim to beat his father's team, Ferrell's Phil eventually turns into a raving lunatic who will to do anything, including kicking the opposing children in the shins, to succeed—but at the end of the day director Jesse Dylan and screenwriters Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick (2002's "The Santa Clause 2") go all soft in order to please the small fries and their parents in the audience. The meanspirited nature of the second act and the last-minute turn toward well-intentioned moralizing don't really gel, although this is certainly handled with a less cloying hand than another current release, "Monster-in-Law."

Whether on purpose or not, "Kicking & Screaming" bears more than a passing resemblance to 1992's superior soccer flick, "Ladybugs," only with a sex reversal and minus the whole cross-dressing subplot. That Rodney Dangerfield effort was a funnier, more charming diversion, while this latest version feels comedically overbaked and glaringly underdeveloped. The viewer knows every step of the way where "Kicking & Screaming" is headed, and there is no sidestepping from this tried-and-true path of the sports genre.

It is, then, up to a pair of winning performances to pick up the slack, which they manage to do in fits and starts. Will Ferrell is the main attraction as usual, and for good reason, although his 2003 family film, "Elf," was infinitely smarter and more memorable. He also has a few quieter moments with his benchwarmer son, Sam (Dylan McLaughlin), that are nicely pulled off. And, in a surprisingly natural screen debut, Mike Ditka (former coach of the Chicago Bears) plays himself, or a loose variation thereof, who decides to help out Phil's underdog team as a way of seeking revenge on sworn enemy/neighbor Buck. Ditka has some of the funnier moments, as when he forces the children to do his chores for him in lieu of conventional game training.

"Kicking & Screaming" is a "one-time" motion picture, a new term coined by myself to describe movies that are veritably painless to sit through once, but that offer nothing of value to be worth ever seeing again. Will Ferrell is always entertaining, even in lesser roles like this one, but "Kicking & Screaming" is so inconsequential, unextraordinary and unwilling to break from convention as to almost seem like it doesn't even exist at all.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman