Rarely do sports comedies seem as choppy and scattered as “Kicking & Screaming,” a collection of skits, running gags and first-draft ideas that’s attempting to pass itself off as a fully developed, feature-length Will Ferrell vehicle.
The setup seems reasonable enough. Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a family man and vitamin salesman who is still intimidated by his competitive father, Buck (Robert Duvall). His dad openly humiliates him in front of his wife Barbara (Kate Walsh) and 10-year-old son Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) and any neighbors or gossips who might overhear his impressive stream of verbal abuse.
Duvall, who earned an Oscar nomination for playing a similar role in 1980’s “The Great Santini,” seems ideally cast as the dreadful dad. His wicked cackle, his sneaky putdowns (“I love him like a son”) and even his body language demonstrate casual contempt for his grown son.
No mid-life slacker, Buck sells sporting goods with vulgar television ads (“He’s got balls”) and spends his spare time coaching a kids’ soccer team that includes Bucky (Josh Hutcherson), his own 10-year-old son from a second marriage. Of course the team is called the Gladiators.
“You really think you can coach in my league?” Buck asks Phil when Phil volunteers to coach for Sam’s less macho team, the Tigers. Phil can barely suppress his rage, and Ferrell does a credible job of suggesting why the old man has such a hold on him.
So does Walsh as the long-suffering Barbara, who is always prepared to deal with Phil’s hysteria and even his putdowns of their marriage. When she tells Phil she loves him, all he can say is “What does that have to do with anything?”
Unfortunately, the middle of the movie turns into an unfunny depiction of what appears to be a serious nervous breakdown. Phil becomes addicted to coffee and turns into a caffeine junkie, threatening the employees of a coffee shop and intimidating parents, kids and party-goers on the soccer field.
With the help of the coffee injections (and the irrational behavior of his assistant coach, played by Chicago Bears football coach Mike Ditka), Phil more or less becomes Buck, and it’s not a pretty sight. Neither is the stupefyingly conventional feel-good ending, which tries to write off the bad behavior and suggest that it’s all in the past.
Directed by Jesse Dylan (“American Wedding”) from a script by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick (who worked together on “Space Jam” and Tim Allen’s “Santa Claus” comedies), “Kicking & Screaming” does have its bright moments. The early slapstick episodes, which emphasize Phil’s physical awkwardness with dart boards, aquariums and other objects that become dangerous in his hands, are pretty funny.
The individual bits click partly because the actors are so well-cast and they know how to carry a scene beyond what’s in the script. What the movie needs is an old-fashioned three-act structure, which might have carried it past the problems of stringing together a lot of disconnected jokes.