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Movie Review

“If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?” —Vince Lombardi

“Second place is simply the first loser.” —Anonymous

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” —Red Sanders

“When you’re a winner you’re always happy, but if you’re happy as a loser you’ll always be a loser.” —Mark Fidrych

“Winning is everything. The only ones who remember you when you come in second are your wife and your dog.” —Damon Hill

The people behind those quotes must’ve studied under Buck Weston who said, “What do you call it when you ‘almost win’? Oh yeah, losing.” The win-at-all-costs owner of a thriving sporting goods chain, Buck may be the most competitive man on the planet. So you can imagine his disappointment when his only son, Phil, failed to demonstrate any athletic ability. Now an adult, Phil is a sweet, sensitive vitamin salesman. He’s no jock. Neither is his 11-year-old son, Sam, who warms the bench for the Gladiators, Buck's powerhouse youth soccer team. That is until Grandpa Buck trades him to the last-place Tigers, a hapless bunch of kids in search of a coach because their last one suffered a nervous breakdown.

Phil doesn’t know much about soccer, but since he wants Sam to get into some games he volunteers to fill the void. For one game. Pretty soon he’s committed for the season. Realizing he’s in over his head, Phil recruits Buck’s hot-tempered neighbor (former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka playing himself) to help him whip the players into shape. Ditka and Buck don’t get along, so Ditka relishes the chance to frustrate his next-door nemesis on the playing field even if it means partnering with a softie like Phil.

To rescue the flailing team, Ditka recruits two Italian boys from the local butcher shop who give the Tigers a spark. He also creates a monster when he introduces Phil to the joys of coffee. Flush with the taste of victory and highly caffeinated beverages, this mild-mannered dad—once brimming with encouragement and a healthy view of youth sports—becomes a championship-hungry menace.

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Positive Elements

The film preaches less to kids than to hypercompetitive adults. The moral of the story is, as Phil attests at the beginning and rediscovers by the end, that youth sports should exist as a fun means of recreation, not cutthroat competition. The father-son relationship is valued more highly than victories or trophies. [Spoiler Warning] When Phil comes to his senses midway through the big game he tells Sam he’s starting the second half. “You���re not worried about losing the game?” the boy asks. Phil replies, “I’m worried about losing you.” Phil also makes peace with his own father, using Buck’s prized possession to make his point (“The ball is just a metaphor for the distance between us”). He even shouts expressions of love from one sideline to the other.

Noting the kids’ need for a coach, Phil agrees to help despite being out of his element. Meanwhile Phil’s wife, Barbara, supports him, encourages him, defends him when he’s right and holds him accountable when he’s wrong. There are consequences to Phil’s inappropriate, antisocial antics. He humbly apologizes to his son and his team for going a little nuts. Elsewhere, boys teach each other ball-handling skills and work together as a selfless unit. Making the best of a disappointing situation pays dividends for Sam. After mugging like a gangsta and using the expressions “pimpin’” and “cracker,” a naive boy admits that he’s imitating stuff he saw in a rap video, even though he has no idea what it means (reminding parents of children’s propensity to copy what they see and hear in entertainment). Rather than see the Italian boys miss a game because of work, the team pitches in to help them cut meat. It’s one of many instances of selfless cooperation.

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

One boy’s parents are lesbians, though there’s nothing “sexual” shown or discussed onscreen. There are a few low-cut blouses.

Violent Content

There’s a lot of physical comedy that finds Phil or the kids getting whacked with soccer balls. Phil also takes a beating during a tetherball game with his father (struck in back, groin, face and head). He burns himself twice with hot coffee. Stray darts destroy a neon sign and shatter a fish tank. A misplaced hammer throw devastates the scorer’s table.

“Evil” Phil tells his team to “play dirty, just don’t get caught.” He instructs them to exit a huddle with the rallying cry, “Let’s break someone’s clavicle.” Phil runs onto the field and pushes down a young competitor. After taunting an opposing player, Phil is attacked by the boy and wrestled to the ground. Such exaggeration is meant to show how extremely foolish and inappropriately Phil is behaving, but could be misinterpreted by small children who hear him getting laughs. On separate occasions Phil’s wife and assistant coach slap him to calm him down. He trashes a cappuccino maker. Ditka throws a punch at Buck that nails Phil.

Crude or Profane Language

Several uses of “h---,” including people telling each other to go there. TV commercials for Buck’s sporting goods stores boast, “He’s got balls!” Heckling at a soccer dinner also includes testicular humor. A couple uses of “my God” are joined by a child saying, “geez.” Other expressions that may give parents of young children pause include “butt,” “sucks” and “fart-faced kid.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Phil appears to be drinking beer at a barbecue. Ditka spikes Phil’s coffee with vodka. The former NFL coach also enjoys cigars.

Other Negative Elements

Adopted urchin Byong Sun has two soccer moms, inspiring Phil to react awkwardly in an attempt to show the lesbians he has no problem with their lifestyle choice. Ditka’s temper flares up during practices and games. Eventually, so does Phil’s, causing him to berate people. Angry men behave more childishly than the kids. A boy urinates in the bushes. Phil and his dad make a wager. Imitative behavior includes a boy eating earthworms. Phil chants “losers” at a team they’ve just beaten.

Conclusion

Who needs to see Revenge of the Sith’s Anakin Skywalker turn to the dark side when you can watch Phil Weston take a swift, java-induced, often funny journey into madness? He surrenders for a season to that which he despised—the competitive nature that defines his father. (Cue heavy breathing.) The good news is that Phil doesn’t pass a point of no return. Kicking & Screaming works because he spends just long enough as a soccer Sith to tickle the funny bone before returning to the lovable goofball Ferrell plays so well (remember Buddy the elf?). He’s a great big kid himself. It’s a kick watching him lose control because we know it’s just temporary insanity.

I must admit, when I heard that the director of the raunchy, R-rated comedy American Wedding was at the helm, I feared we’d get a distasteful movie full of foul-mouthed children—The Bad News Bears in cleats. Not so. These are decent, generally respectful kids whose innocence plays beautifully against Ferrell’s manic insecurity. Unlike comics with an aggressive swagger and no fear of retaliation, Ferrell’s bombast always contains hints of an exit strategy. It makes this suburban dad—desperate to earn points with his father and do right by his son—vulnerable and easy to sympathize with.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the performance of Mike Ditka. Sure, he’s just playing himself here, but his line delivery is quite convincing, especially in scenes opposite someone as good as Robert Duvall. On a side note, moviegoers who enjoy catching continuity errors will find a few in Ditka’s scenes. For example, in the butcher shop he goes back and forth between chewing gum and not, indicating that the scene was shot twice from different angles. And during his final chat with Ferrell over the fence, his hands shift position illogically. Those aren’t really criticisms, just fun goofs proving that filmmakers are only human.

As for the cautions detailed above, most won’t be an issue for older audiences able to recognize juvenile comments and over-the-top behavior for the humorous homilies they're set up to be here. Kicking & Screaming wants parents and coaches to lighten up a little and let their children enjoy sports. More fun, less pressure. The film uses entertaining hyperbole to put overzealous adults in their place because it seems to care about kids. Whether or not it’s appropriate for kids will be for parents to decide.

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