For filmgoers, there are few sensations more pleasurable than the thrill of identification, that sense of, “I know these people,” or better still, “I am these people.” That’s how I felt the first time I saw 1995’s Kicking & Screaming. It felt like Noah Baumbach had made a movie not just for me and my friends, but about us. Kicking & Screaming isn’t perfect, but it perfectly captures a specific time in the lives of every graduate of a liberal-arts school, when the future and the present both seem simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. It’s an age when anything seems possible: starting a business, or going to the Far East on a backpacking trip of sexual self-discovery and psychedelic exploration, or embarking on the start of a thrilling career in journalism, law, or medicine. But most people just wind up wasting time, watching television, and delaying the future out of a strong, not entirely unsupported conviction that it contains horrors beyond the imagination of H.P. Lovecraft.
Kicking & Screaming begins on graduation night, and the grim expressions on the characters’ faces suggest they view the rite of passage with trepidation rather than jubilation. They share a dread common to recent graduates: the sense that four years and $100,000 worth of debt at a liberal-arts school will prepare them for nothing but a lifetime of cursing their student-loan payments.
As Max (Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigeman), the most caustic and dyspeptic of the group, whines, “I wish we were going off to war.” He and the rest of his friends lack a catalyst for their future. In Max’s myopic mind, at least, dodging Nazi bullets and climbing through barbed wire would be preferable to the wispy, wimpy, soft-bellied ennui of post-collegiate life. Max is joined by Grover (Josh Hamilton), the film’s ostensible lead, a self-styled intellectual and writer whose romance with fellow writer Jane (Olivia D’Abo) is both the film’s weakest element and the closest it has to a plot. At the graduation party, when Jane announces she’s leaving for Prague, Grover spits, “Oh, I’ve been to Prague.” When Jane calls him out on his claim, he clarifies, “Well, I haven’t been-to-Prague been to Prague, but I know that thing, I know that stop-shaving-your-armpits, read-The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, fall-in-love-with-a-sculptor, now-I-realize-how-bad-American-coffee-is thing.”
This exchange epitomizes Kicking & Screaming’s wonderful quotability; its brilliant Criterion cover is just a series of quotes from the film, inside word balloons. But the film’s effectiveness lies in the audience being able to identify Europe as not just as a continent, but also a stage of life many college kids go through post-graduation, a stage when, as Grover pointedly grouses, they start engaging in the same edgy, boundary-pushing rites of passage American college kids have been indulging in since F. Scott Fitzgerald got his first passport. Max and Grover aren’t going anywhere, however, and neither are their buddies Skippy (Jason Wiles), who is so instantly nostalgic for school that he uses graduation as a pretense to audit more classes, and Otis (Carlos Jacott), a lovable goober who puts off graduate school in Milwaukee so he can go work in a video store.
Nothing about Kicking & Screaming says “1995” more than the video store’s central place in the narrative. Quentin Tarantino’s success made working at a video store seem like an acceptable substitute for film school, and in one of the film’s sliest gags, Otis’ boss talks about the movie he’s going to make someday, and about how interesting it will be to personally see who rents his movie. His worldview is so small that he can’t conceive of a future where he doesn’t work shifts at the video store, even after he realizes his dream of being a filmmaker.
That’s true to the mindset of college kids and recent college graduates: It’s hard to envision a world substantially different than the one they’ve spent the last four or five or six years immersed in, even if their degree, their parents, and society all demand that they get out there and at least make enough of themselves to pay back those damn student loans. The future is terrifying and uncertain to these young men, so they retreat into the comforting cocoon of the familiar. The big questions terrify them, so they obsess over trivia. They regress into the stupidity and minutia of adolescence, and while away the hours making lists, insulting each other, and participating in stupid quizzes about dumb shit like the subtitles of every Friday The 13th movie. (In 2014, such endeavors are collectively known as “the Internet.”)
This is illustrated most brilliantly in a sequence where Max worries about his future while Otis excitedly answers a buddy’s question about eight movies where monkeys play prominent roles. While the disarmingly childlike, adorably inept Otis rattles off monkey movies, Max frets, “You know, in a few hours, I’m going to lose all identity. Eight hours ago, I was Max Belmont, Fairmont college senior. Now I am Max Belmont who does nothing.”
It’s a testament to Baumbach’s confidence as a first-time filmmaker, still in his mid-20s when he filmed Kicking & Screaming, that Max and Otis’ dialogue overlaps, Robert Altman-style, in a way that forces viewers to pay very close attention or miss part of the dialogue of these two very different men talking simultaneously about what appear to be extremely different subjects, but ultimately are not.
Eric Stoltz, a Tarantino vet himself, rounds out the cast as Chet, a bartender and eternal student who’s an outlier in the film, in part because the character wasn’t in the original screenplay; Stoltz’s role was added because the film needed a movie star in order to get funded. Stoltz and Baumbach created the character of Chet together; in another filmmaker’s hands, Chet could, and probably should, be obnoxious. He’s a trust-fund baby who never really has to work, graduate, or grow up, because mommy and daddy are paying the bills. He’s a shameless womanizer with a sexual history that includes both undergraduates and professors, and he’s hilariously verbose and pretentious, a man whose signature vocal tic involves reverently quoting himself. And yet Chet is lovable all the same. Instead of playing him as a brittle, misanthropic caricature of a pretentious college intellectual, Stoltz gives the character a laid-back, even sexy charm that belies the groaning pretension of his dialogue.
Chet is the only male in Kicking & Screaming who seems happy in his own skin. He likes himself, probably too much, but that contentment has a philosophical dimension as well. The other men of Kicking & Screaming are miserable because their lives are so uncertain, but Chet has figured out that being a student forever is what he wants to do with his life. He has the conviction the others desperately lack, so they fill up the hours by talking. And talking. And talking.
Baumbach’s film is unmistakably male; in a meta running gag, the women in the film accuse the men of all talking alike (that is, in the voice of Noah Baumbach), and of secretly being in love with one another. The women in the film aren’t anywhere near as nuanced or well-developed as the men, and despite the presence of Parker Posey (who, as part of her legal obligation to appear in every independent movie of the 1990s, plays the character “Miami”), the only female character with any depth is Jane. And even she feels more like a young New Yorker writer’s fantasy conception of a complicated young woman than a flesh-and-blood human being.
Kicking & Screaming climaxes with Grover racing to the airport to try to spontaneously book a flight to Hungary to be with Jane. The development at first feels like a screamingly cinematic betrayal of the film’s low-key, slice-of-life comedy, but the scene’s strong degree of self-consciousness helps redeem it. Grover is, after all, a member of the video-store generation, raised on the tidy formulas of sitcoms and romantic comedies. As such, he is attuned to their rhythms and character arcs, and as he talks to the woman behind the counter at the airport, he’s able to take a step back and see himself not just in the sweaty, uncertain present, but rather from the perspective of his future.
Grover understands that, despite the free-floating ennui afflicting him and his friends, he’s in the process of living the years he’ll be obsessing about nostalgically 20, 30, or 40 years later. The rudderless inertia he bemoans in the short term will look like an impossible expanse of freedom and opportunity from the perspective of a middle-aged man whose life is ruled by ritual, obligations, and mortality. Grover comes to the powerful realization that his choices now will be the memories of the future, and that, even if turns out to be the wrong decision, going to Hungary on a whim to pursue the girl of his dreams will make for a hell of a better story than telling his grandchildren that he and his buddies spent what were supposed to be the best years of their lives trying to rattle off eight movies prominently involving monkeys.
Kicking & Screaming goes for the big, dramatic movie moment, then immediately undercuts it by having the woman behind the counter reveal she can’t book that instant flight to Hungary, but that maybe he’ll have better luck tomorrow. In a conventional movie, the romantic lead would get on that flight even if he had to cock-punch everyone on the way to the gate. Kicking & Screaming is more honest than that, however, and acknowledges that things seldom play out the way they do in movies, even when the characters are actually in a movie.
Baumbach has a reputation for being a misanthropic filmmaker who obsesses about the ugliness of human nature in movies like The Squid And The Whale, Margot At The Wedding, and Greenberg, but Kicking & Screaming remains the most lovable of debuts. It’s a quintessential hangout movie, and I experienced a powerful wave of nostalgia watching it. It felt like I was watching home movies from my own college years rather than a fictional film. I suspect a whole lot of people felt that way, and connected to the film so powerfully that they were rooting for Baumbach even in the eight-year wilderness between 1997’s Mr. Jealousy and 2005’s The Squid And The Whale, when it seemed entirely possible that Baumbach’s career would be limited to a brilliant debut and a sad trickle of lesser follow-ups.
1997’s Highball is undoubtedly a lesser follow-up. Even Baumbach has distanced himself from it, using a pseudonym both for his direction (the film is now credited to Ernie Fusco) and the script he co-wrote with fellow actors Carlos Jacott and Christopher Reed, which is credited to “Jesse Carter.”
In an interview our own Noel Murray conducted for The A.V. Club, Baumbach explained why he disowned the film:
The truth is, I never “owned” Highball. It really was an experiment, and kind of a foolish experiment, because I didn't think about what the ramifications would be if it didn’t work. But it was made with all the best intentions, which was to try and make a movie in six days, and use all the same people from Mr. Jealousy, with all their goodwill, and bring in some more people. And it was a funny script. But it was just too ambitious. We didn't have enough time, we didn't finish it, it didn’t look good, it was just a whole… mess. [Laughs.] We couldn’t get it done, and I had a falling out with the producer. He abandoned it, and I had no money to finish it, to go back and maybe get two more days or something. Then later, it was put out on DVD without my approval.
Baumbach is being a little too hard on his own film, but not on its look. Highball is one of the ugliest, worst-lit films ever made by a major filmmaker. The film is full of the kinds of shadows caused by poor-quality lighting placed incorrectly, and I suspect that the Baumbach of 2014 would throw out nearly all of the footage as unusable. The much-less-experienced Baumbach of 1997 understandably distanced himself from the film before it was dumped onto home video with a cover that, in the grand tradition of mercenary covers, badly misrepresents the film it’s ostensibly advertising while promising a much different, much stupider movie.
The cover seem to promise a Swingers knock-off about a daffy, clumsy, poorly Photoshopped waitress at a swing bar (Annabella Sciorra) who falls in love with a cigar-loving early adopter of the “normcore” aesthetic, played by a bemused Stoltz, inside what appears to be an alternate universe that resembles a giant, vaguely psychedelic, puke-green early screen-saver.
I’m tempted to be kind and argue that other than looking like an amateurish student film and showing a blithe disregard for aesthetics, Highball is a funny, entertaining little sleeper. But for a man who holds himself to the standards Baumbach does, the first half of that semi-compliment negates the second.
Highball is a breezy trifle that takes place over three parties thrown by recently married couple Travis (Christopher Reed) and Diane (Lauren Katz), who would like to make the jump from occasionally having friends over to cultivating their own private salon of brainy conversation, a contemporary Algonquin Round Table of witty banter.
The first get-together is a birthday party for the curmudgeonly Felix (Jacott), who lives up to his reputation by arriving late and leaving well before his birthday cake is served. The second soirée is a Halloween party where the split between the temporarily separated Travis and Diane manifests itself in Travis bitterly trying to form his own separatist party devoted to drinking home-brew in a converted laundry closet he tries to pass off as a manly bar. The final party takes the form of a New Year’s shindig where the group’s suavest resident, Darien (Stoltz), comes out as gay, and Felix, who has been a complete bastard to everyone the entire film, most notably Philip (a droll Baumbach, equipped with an unintended Hitler mustache), is now much kinder and more generous following what appears to be electroshock therapy, brain damage, or a series of nervous breakdowns.
Highball is driven less by a conventional plot than a series of jazz-like riffs, many of them inspired. Peter Bogdanovich pops in sporadically to do impersonations of old movie stars to a chorus of confused looks, if not outright irritation. Squabbling co-workers Fletcher (Eigeman) and Miles (John Lehr), who work together at a recording studio that’s consistently confused for a record store, conduct a charged conversation while dressed in identical Barney-like lizard costumes during the Halloween party. A magician described as “kind of a free spirit” and “not really employable,” who has wrestled with more than his share of demons, performs a hilariously cheesy act for a 33-year-old’s party.
The eternally annoying Miles peppers party guests Rae Dawn Chong and Ally Sheedy (playing themselves) with questions about all the famous people they’ve met and whether they know the individual members of The Cars, and Felix mercilessly ribs Philip for ostensibly causing the death of a Third World child by not keeping up with his donations to a feed-the-children charity. And in a particularly funny sequence, Travis delivers the news of Felix’s sexual orientation to Philip in a flurry of hilariously vague verbiage.
Highball has a wisp of a plot, or at a least a sliver of character developments. Travis and Diane split up, then get back together. Darien comes out and Felix devolves, or evolves, depending on your perspective, from acid-witted misanthrope to zonked-out good samaritan. But like Kicking & Screaming, Highball is really just an excuse for people to talk.
Kicking & Screaming was also driven by dialogue, but it managed to filter that obsession with gab into a sneakily well-structured screenplay that managed to feel like an actual film. Highball, by comparison, just feels like a series of clever but poorly filmed scenes stitched together with an eye toward getting a passable film into the home-video marketplace, where it might be able to turn a small profit predicated on the public’s affection for Stoltz, Sciorra, and supporting players Justine Bateman, Sheedy, and Chong.
As a Baumbach film, Highball falls dreadfully short of the standards set by the films he didn’t take his name off, but as an abandoned little orphan, it has its vinegary charms. Even at his worst, Baumbach can’t help but be at least moderately entertaining. Highball’s complete lack of a visual aesthetic is even more surprising, considering that Mr. Jealousy—which was shot around the same time, with much of the same cast and crew, including the same cinematographer, Steven Bernstein—is, if anything, overly stylized. It’s as if Baumbach spent so much time mapping out each individual shot and transition in Mr. Jealousy that for Highball, he only had enough energy left to tell Bernstein, “Just make sure the shots are in focus.”
Mr. Jealousy feels simultaneously more ambitious and more minor than Kicking & Screaming. Where Kicking & Screaming feels like a debut novel—deeply personal, overflowing with ideas and energy, a reflection of everything its creator had been through up until that point—then Mr. Jealousy feels more like a short story that might appear in The New Yorker, a magazine Baumbach sometimes contributes to. It’s more about capturing and preserving a feeling for posterity than telling a ripping yarn.
In the case of Mr. Jealousy, the feeling in question is jealousy, an emotion the dryly deadpan narrator says has been dominating the romantic life of protagonist Lester Grimm (Stoltz) since he caught a crush making out with a 23-year-old club promoter while he was still an impressionable 15-year-old. This early experience with infidelity imprinted upon Lester the notion that women are not to be trusted, so when Lester’s charming girlfriend Ramona (Sciorra) mentions in passing that after college, she dated Dashiell Frank (Eigeman), an author with a bestselling, much-buzzed-about short-story collection, Lester’s jealousy transforms a droplet of information into a raging tsunami of jealousy.
In a bid to learn more about Dashiell, ostensibly for the purpose of ensuring he doesn’t make the kind of mistakes in his relationship with Ramona that Dashiell did, Lester joins Dashiell’s therapy group under a fake name and identity—both of which belong to his friend Vince (Jacott), who feels strongly that everyone should be in therapy, but is not actually in therapy himself. In an unfortunate example of what Roger Ebert referred to as The Idiot Plot, Vince convinces Lester to pretend to be him so he can gain the knowledge and understanding that would ostensibly come from actually being in the group himself, without actually having to show up.
Jealousy can make people do stupid and selfish things, and Mr. Jealousy is insightful in dissecting how it can poison not just a relationship, but an entire life, by casting everything in the darkest possible light. The film understands the insidiousness of jealousy, how it gets under the skin and induces a bleak, self-destructive myopia where fears about past lovers or previous infidelities play on a perpetual loop, making progress and emotional growth impossible. The film depicts the kind of intense, life-wrecking jealousy consuming Lester as the worst kind of emotional stasis, the kind that prevents someone from seeing partners as they really are, and from being truly present and engaged.
If Lester had joined Dashiell’s therapy group without letting on that he was currently dating someone another member had dated a long time ago, that might feel plausible, though it’d still be pushing it a little. But having Lester join the group under a fake name and identity, and then having Ramona and seemingly everyone else in his life regularly ask him about how his therapy is going, reeks of screenwriting contrivance. In that respect, Mr. Jealousy reminded me at times of Enough Said, another film by and about smart, engaged adults dealing with substantive, important issues, which the filmmakers unfortunately felt would be best addressed through a plot so gimmicky, it falls into Three’s Company territory.
Highball and Kicking & Screaming barely have plots. Mr. Jealousy has altogether too much plot. The farcical plotting weighs the film down and consistently compromises its sense of emotional realism, but it pays rich dividends, comedically at least, in a late-film twist that finds Vince joining the group using Lester’s name (or at least the derivation “Leo”), Lester’s identity, and Lester’s issues, albeit with a British accent. Why a British accent? “Leo feels British to me,” Vince explains, even though the character of “Vince” is a real person who is not British.
Mr. Jealousy benefits tremendously from stellar work from the Baumbach repertory company. Vince’s fake accent never stops being hilarious, and the wonderfully prickly Eigeman injects perfect comic timing and maximum drollery into lines about his girlfriend liking a Chinese place with “bad food but good fortunes,” and a previous girlfriend being “what a Philip Roth character might call a chippie.”
Lester and Dashiell are set up as antagonists, but Dashiell surprises Lester by seeking out his friendship even after Lester repeatedly challenges him in group therapy. Jealousy isn’t a one-way street; Dashiell clearly admires or envies some elements of Lester as well, but as the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Lester’s jealousy doesn’t really have anything to do with Dashiell, or even with Ramona, and has everything to do with his own insecurities and self-loathing.
Lester’s paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he comes to pay a steep price for his inability to come to terms with Ramona’s past. As the film begins, Ramona and Lester’s relationship is still new and fragile, and even if Dashiell weren’t part of the equation—and he’s really only part of the equation because Lester’s obsession makes him so—they don’t seem meant to last. Lester realizes that, too. He seems to know that the blanket, all-purpose brush-off people inevitably use to dismiss exes, “It didn’t mean anything,” might someday apply to him as well. Years later, Ramona will see him as just another step in her path toward the right one.
I first saw Mr. Jealousy as a 21-year-old who still clung to the conviction that comedies should be funny and protagonists should be likable. Mr. Jealousy traffics in comedy that is funny-strange and funny-awkward, but not funny ha-ha, and its main characters are almost impressively unsympathetic. Ramona is likable, but like Jane in Kicking & Screaming, she also embodies a writer’s conception of the perfect New York dream woman—super-smart and sexy, cerebral yet daffy—more than a real human being. If Mr. Jealousy were a conventional romantic comedy, it would be hampered by an unlikable male lead and an insufficiently complex female lead, but Mr. Jealousy isn’t a romantic comedy. Instead, it’s a dramatic comedy—like Margot At The Wedding and The Squid And The Whale and Greenberg—about troubled, self-defeating people whose toxic neuroses and pretension irrevocably damage the lives of those around them.
But Mr. Jealousy has value as something more than a bridge linking the hangout comedy of Kicking & Screaming and the darkly comic character studies that followed. For all of its contrivances and artificiality, there’s something authentic and powerful at the core of Mr. Jealousy as well. It’s just as relatable as Kicking & Screaming, albeit for vastly different reasons. I suspect that helps explain why the film doesn’t have anywhere near the cult following Kicking & Screaming does. Everyone enjoys a nostalgic trip back to their post-college days, no matter how bittersweet. Fewer people are interested in looking into a deep, dark, truthful mirror of their own ugliest impulses.
Up next: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia