As I was watching "Kicking & Screaming", the latest film starring Will Ferrell, I found myself saying repeatedly "This film was tailor made for Adam Sandler." The film centers around a man, Phil Weston (Ferrell), who grows up in a home with a father, Buck,(played by Robert Duvall) who is the "most competitive man alive." He insists on beating his son at everything and even when he has his son on sports teams his son sits on the bench all the time, every time. Of course, this leads to an insecure, repressed adult who, nonetheless, finds a woman, gets married, runs a vitamin store (his father runs five sports equipment stores) and has a son.
Fast forward a few years and the son is now on his grandfather's soccer team along with his grandfather's youngest son (from his marriage to a MUCH younger woman). Of course, Phil's son rides the bench while Buck's son becomes the star. The young man ends up getting "traded" by his grandfather to the worst team and, suddenly, Phil Weston finds himself coaching the team.
So many of these situations cry out for Sandler...virtually every act we've seen from Sandler could have been utilized here. We have his ability to humanize repression (as in "Punch-Drunk Love"), his ability to show great chemistry with kids (as in "Big Daddy" and "Billy Madison"), his ability to be a complete ass (as in "Happy Gilmore") and, well, the list goes on and on and on. Now, don't get me wrong...it's not as if Ferrell fails here. Hardly. In many ways, he has a field day with the role...However, this film is barely a "B" and could easily be considered a "C" film...Sandler's explosiveness, yet ability to turn on a dime into utter sincerity would have added immeasurably to this film. Instead, "Kicking & Screaming" often plays like a disjointed, yet often entertaining film about family, competition and the stereotypical "what really matters" lesson that seems to always exist in sports films aimed at children.
Ferrell is, quite simply, most effective when he's sympathetic...and the scenes where he turns into his father are unconvincing and unattractive, even when played for laughs. He's never quite believable...and, unlike his "Elf" portrayal...where he so completely threw himself into the character and situations it felt like Ferrell was playing it safe a lot in this film. Several times, I found myself feeling on the edge of laughing hysterically only to see the scene end abruptly.
Ferrell ends up giving a good, but incredibly safe performance...safety is not something I've come to expect from Ferrell and it made me appreciate the film less than I had hoped for...likewise, Ferrell seems to be falling into a "Denzel" syndrome. Just like Denzel has his finger gesture, Ferrell has a line that has now been repeated in three of his films "Owwww, you're hurting me." It's not so bad that the line is present...it's the fact that the delivery is similar in all three films. Am I really the only one who has picked up on this?
Because character development is weak, ordinarily dependable actors are left without much to do. One of my favorite actors, Robert Duvall, is reduced to a cliche' as the winning obsessed dad...it is such a shallow development that when he changes somewhat towards the end it is completely meaningless. I can give kudos to the stunt casting of Mike Ditka in the role of Duvall's next door neighbor and arch enemy. It's a fun performance, but again it ends abruptly and rather awkwardly.
The team is filled with actors sort of reminiscent of the "Bad News Bears." It's an odd assortment of boys including the Asian son of a lesbian couple, the token African American boy, a punk, a brain, a kid who eats worms...and, well, you get the point.
Yet, a lot of the film works because, as disjointed as the whole thing is, it's often funny and, on a certain level, endearing. Ferrell, at his worst, has a knack for bringing out a certain level of innocence and likeability in his characters. This works to his advantage here, and while the entire film is predictable it's still a fairly pleasant journey.
"Kicking & Screaming" has a solid soundtrack and production values. It lacks the charm of "Elf," the outrageousness of "Old School" and the cohesiveness of "Anchorman." Yet, the numerous families that were in attendance seemed to enjoy it and it's a reasonably family friendly comedy. Will Ferrell's latest film is a moderately entertaining, often funny film that still leaves me longing for Sandler and wondering if a decent comedy could have been a damn good one.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic