How Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming explores Post Academia Tedium and Meaning of Life
Grover (Josh Hamilton) sees an unforeseeable wrench thrown into his plans when his long-standing girlfriend of five years, Jane (Olivia d’ Abo), dumps him in favor of a writing scholarship in Europe. And it is right from this moment of their breakup and snippets of other characters engaging in post-college anxieties we find an overwhelming sense of complacency running throughout the disjointed narrative of “Kicking and Screaming”, Noah Baumbach’s first excursion as a director. The plot is fragmented, and instead of cyclic nature of seasons, we are presented with only the academic timeline to follow the progression/regression of these miscreants. Grove, along with Max, Otis, and Skippy form ‘Cougars’ because it sounds good and looks good on a satin jacket. Who would have thought, right?
Speaking of thinking, all these people seem to have a difficult relationship with analyzing and overseeing their futures. Transition is not a transaction these renegades believe in. They fear the arrival of the time as they will have to move on. In the process of prolonging their future, they also prolong their misery. In spite of a promising literary career (and his girlfriend Jane) Grover refuses to leave, shacking up with his friends to avoid making any decisions. Instead of being supportive of Jane’s decision of moving to Prague, he is highly condescending and pokes fun at Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka with an air of American superficiality- downplaying her insistence on acquiring culture. His reading of the situation in absolutely infantile, as Jane is left nonplussed when Grover accuses her of abandoning him.
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Max (Chris Eigeman) is a trust fund kid who serves no purpose but himself, and would rather place a futile warning sign than making any effort whatsoever in wiping the glass off the floor. Too cynical for someone who philosophizes exhaustively, he is a self-centered irritant who excels at whining and chiding a not so wayward Otis. Otis (Carlos Jacott) is the weakest link of the group and on a wide spectrum of emotions can only relate to feeling antsy and testy. Like the rest of the group, his uneasiness in dealing with change is demonstrated in his awkward behavior, as we find him deferring his admissions and packing the T.V remote ‘accidentally’. He works at a video store (a job he secured after two rounds of interview) with barely adequate knowledge of cinema, struggles with irrational fears, and is reluctant to complain about the piece of food in his beverage. He even goes along with the ludicrous suggestion of wearing a nose ring to impress a girl. Overall, his gelatinous personality and pliability are infuriating.
The last but not the least is Skippy (Jason Wiles), who gets a surge of inspiration to race through all the literary work on the eve of graduation and marry his girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey); which soon vanishes as we realize Skippy is equally indecisive as the rest and is latching on to his girlfriend’s skirt in the name of his re-education. It is all a ruse, this projection of his great ambitions in life. His role in the group is insubstantial and he is often the butt of jokes, ridicule and combined frustration of the rest. And then there’s Chet (Eric Stoltz). We all know a Chet. A guy who has graduated but never really leaves (think Matthew McCaughey’s Woody from “Dazed and Confused” but smarter and less wasted).
Their friendships seem more likely to be a feeling of being stuck with the same group of people out of sheer helplessness and boredom. They seldom know what the rest of them are up to and their indifference is palpable in their association. Grover doesn’t know anything about Otis’s choice of further education; Max also is unaware of Otis’ whereabouts and Max’s status as a tutor. There’s a lot of deception and mistrust among the group members as they are reluctant to share information and secrets, as Max is ratted out on for sleeping with Miami.
There’s also talk of paralysis in the movie, exhibited by mannerisms and personalities; providing a perfect excuse to Grover and the group who aren’t ready to be real people yet. It is their fears that are deterrent no matter how much they blame it on circumstances and its unfair nature. They indulge in games of self indulge and absurd musings, finding solace in the vacuum of their own creation. Real, meaningful conversations seldom happen and people in this film talk in quips and almost theatrical one-liners. The girlfriend characters of Jane, Miami, and Kate (Max’s girlfriend played by Cara Buono) more in charge of their approaching adulthood in comparison to the male counterparts who are trapped in the nostalgia of yesteryears.
I graduated from in 2017 but decided to stay for my Master’s Degree. Sure, I did it for myself but a dominant part of me believes it was a decision made due to my inability to make a meaningful transition in life. I’m not the first one and certainly not the last one to feel a bit lost, but I do have a painful time with new challenges and confrontations. No wonder this movie hits a little close to home. All Noah Baumbach movies hit a little close to home.
We’ve all been Frances. We’ve all been Roger Greenberg. We’ve all been Danny Meyerowitz.
We crumble in the face of change. We all dodge the confrontational blow-outs and repercussions and all the mess that’s left behind. The catharsis is never achieved, not at least in the singular, purest form. But it’s good to get the poison out once in a while. It’s either that or going off the deep end. One can’t help but be fascinated by how Baumbach through a funny, vastly re-watchable and highly quotable movie about aimless college graduates forms the bedrock of existentialist themes. No one wants to take initiative, but everyone wants the world at their feet; which speaks for the horrible sense of entitlement associated with Gen-X which knows and speaks of everything and nothing at the same time.
Max and the rest of the ‘Cougars’ are all smart kids, too smart for their own good as they fail to see that they will benefit a great deal by acknowledging the fact that they stand in their way. Haunted by Jane’s departure, we find Grover constantly trying to retrace his steps through a series of flashbacks which show us the beginning of their relationship. But he eventually finds a semblance of closure in a heart to heart with Chet in what’s one of the most touching scenes in the movie. Chet accepts his fulfillment with being a learner of things forever and Otis moves on too, finally leaving for his grad school while Max also applies for a teaching post. Skippy too leaves the group, realizing the group never bonded as friends and it was nothing but fear that had kept them together.
They don’t realize it yet, but they will change. The wheels are already in motion. Their catharsis may not be fully-fledged, but they sure are going to swing it. The abandoning of their existing credo and moving on is their watershed moment. The upshot will be in their favor as they will come out victorious, kicking and screaming!