"You know, even though all 618 of us were wearing caps and gowns out there today, I couldn't help but think it was a coincidence that we were both wearing black."
Okay, so let's catch up with the 90's real quick. Cold War? Dead and gone by 1992. The United States is, as the newspapers are putting it, the only super power in the world. It's a triumph of America, the good ol' USA, the red, white and blue.
So, uh, what next? Thoughts of the era become reflexive and introspective (when they weren't dwelling on sloppy blowjobs in the White House), and soon film began to deconstruct images of America, modern and past, in an attempt to etch out how we define our heroism (Saving Private Ryan) and disillusionment (Natural Born Killers). But still, these were inching closer to becoming postmodern pastiches, and the movies, filled with remakes and re-imaginings, began to feel just as directionless.
So what next?
The beauty of Kicking and Screaming is that it's honest enough to admit that it doesn't seem to know either. It's a film about four men who are equally lost after successfully completing college. They've got their educations, they've been told that they're special and unique, and now are completely baffled as to the next step.
They're four white middle class males. Grover (Josh Hamilton) sees his girlfriend (Olivia D'Abo) leaving him for the allure of Europe, Max (Chris Eigeman) can't do anything with the philosophy degree that gives him his smug sense of superiority, Otis (Carlos Jacott) is mortified by anything that isn't inertia, Skippy (Jason Wiles) can't bring himself to quit taking classes, and Chet (Eric Stoltz)... well, Chet is still on year 8 of college. He's happy with that at least.
Noah Baumbach captures these uneasy feelings with a great deal of humor, though it's more of a stoic sense of it than most movies use. Three months after graduation, after everyone has clearly entered a funk, Max drops a glass and thoughtfully leaves a piece of paper on top of it reading "Broken Glass"; this sort of humor can be traced back to the Hal Hartley school of heightened reality, and the use of deadpan here underlies the character's inabilities to create any sort of momentum in their lives.
How does this film exemplify the 90's?
Okay, besides my main idea at the top and pushing past the fact that we're faced with an inordinate amount of flannel, the entire cultural ennui of the white middle class male mentality is picked apart with reckless abandon. They're obsessed with cartoons, super models, masturbation, and intellectualism. Otis works in a video store ("He wasn't kind, he didn't rewind, and now he'll pay the fine!"), and Grover has a quiet, guilty tug-of-war with the unassuming answering machine.
Some of this sounds antiquated, but the emotions and themes, then new in the 90's, have evolved into a tighter state of disarray. Kicking and Screaming didn't point out the problems, but now seems to encapsulate them. The antiseptic feeling of rudderless abandonment is reflected in a deeper cultural movement revolving around feelings of powerlessness in the face of affirmative action, sexual liberation, and intellectual defeatism-- still extremely relevant today, but a newer cultural experience at the time.
Oh, and Parker Posey is in this movie. Come on.
What makes this my pick?
Because, dammit, this movie is about me. That's the easiest answer, and probably the best one you'll get when you try and understand why something so deeply reflective and odd can muster the reaction it does from a bunch of disaffected white liberal arts majors.
I knew the beautiful blonde girl who left. I worked in the videostore and met crazy people. I had no idea what I was going to do after college, I just wanted to get done. I can definitely identify with the character's feelings of aloofness-- hell, in some ways I still do. I will try to stop that, though, especially right now.
Besides the connections I've made, there's a lot of other things I enjoy about this film. I love how it's constructed, skipping ahead months and not missing a thing. I like how every character gets their own little moment, and I adore D'Abo's dance to Jimmy Dale Gilmore's "Braver Newer World." I like the way boardgames always lurk in the background, and how the flashbacks are done in still frames that become richer and more vibrant in color, like the past is more alive to Grover than the present. I love the way Skippy disappears as soon as he tells Max to fuck off, because Skippy manages to escape their circle and that's all that matters. I love Max and Kate's strange romance, and Grover's long speech that follows him finally figuring everything out, and the inevitable disappointment that follows immediately thereafter.
But my deepest love of this film does honestly come from a sense of identification. I know a couple of the other writers for this site love it, and I think anyone who has ever been stuck in neutral for any period of time will get it too. It's not a revelation, but it's well-observed, funny, and true.