Will Ferrell has one of the deepest, most beloved filmographies in comedy movie history, with Anchorman, Step Brothers and so many others deservedly becoming classics in the cultural canon of comedy. But while it’s easy to focus on his many, many hits, there are a fair share of movies from Ferrell’s career that have been forgotten. For the most part, that’s because they’re pretty shitty (remember Land of the Lost?), but there is one hidden gem that deserves special recognition.
I’m talking, of course, about 2005’s Kicking & Screaming.
A quick detour before I go any further: I’m not talking about that boring, highfalutin Noah Baumbach movie that happens to have the same name. These movies, in fact, are pretty much complete opposites. Ferrell’s Kicking & Scream is criminally overlooked and tragically underrated, while Baumbach has made his bones with overrated movies that are pretentious despite not really saying anything all that interesting, and it all starts with his inferior version of Kicking and Screaming.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the far superior Kicking & Screaming and how Ferrell is at the peak of his comedic powers as Phil Weston, a mild-mannered dad who has some serious issues with his own dad Buck (played to perfection by Robert Duvall). Buck is the coach of Phil’s son Sam’s youth soccer team until he decides to trade Sam because he believes Sam is a benchwarmer. Sam ends up on the Tigers, who suck, and Phil is forced to coach the team, which naturally creates a rivalry between him and his dad.
It’s a pretty straightforward early aughts comedy plot, but part of what makes this movie great is that it goes down so many strange detours on its seemingly conventional journey. The Tigers are able to start winning games because they discover two Italian boys working at their uncle’s butcher shop. Phil gets addicted to coffee, which fuels him as he rapidly transforms into a winning-obsessed maniac. At one point, Phil gives everyone on the Tigers a finch for basically no reason, only to later admit to their parents that a few of them may have given their kids salmonella.
The cast is also fantastic, bringing a lot of weird, fun energy to roles that could have easily been glorified time-fillers between Ferrell talking. First off, Duvall delivers his best work since Newsies (which was his best performance since Godfather Part II), playing a dad who loves nothing more than winning and withholding affection from his son. He also gets several of the funniest moments in the movie, like when he talks about Phil’s mom dying, only for Phil to remind him that she’s not dead, she just divorced him.
And while Kate Walsh gets the always thankless job of playing the supportive wife who is forced to be the voice of reason for her man-child husband, she manages to make the most of it by wondering what’s going on with her husband but ultimately not giving enough of a shit to stop the madness (which is obviously for our benefit). Even the kids aren’t terrible! The standouts are clearly Josh Hutcherson and Beans from Even Stevens, who play two of the kids on the soccer teams.
Best of all, in what’s maybe the single greatest stunt casting in comedy history, legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka plays a (slightly) fictionalized version of himself who agrees to help Phil coach the Tigers because he’s neighbors with Buck and they hate each other. It’s never not funny to watch a notoriously hardass, Super Bowl-winning coach be the assistant coach of a youth soccer team despite knowing nothing about the game.
All that said, this is Ferrell’s show, and he’s the engine that keeps the clown car running smoothly. Part of what makes Ferrell such a unique talent is that he has a range that few other comic actors possess, whether he’s playing an overconfident blowhard like Ron Burgundy or a happy idiot like Buddy the Elf. And with Kicking & Screaming, Ferrell gets to show off his versatility over the course of a single movie in a way he really doesn’t get to at any other time in his career. Phil begins the movie as a softspoken pushover who gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. He is haunted by his relationship with his father, who seems to regard his son with disdain rather than love. Ferrell plays the beta behavior to perfection, taking on low status, no matter who he is interacting with, even children. He’s a doe-eyed dope whose spine left his body a long time ago.
But once he starts winning — and falls madly in love with coffee — Phil does a complete 180. He’s suddenly an insufferable asshole, complete with the coolest tracksuit of all-time (that’s sadly nowhere to be found online). This is a Ferrell we’re more familiar with; as such, he pulls off the Bruce-Banner-to-Hulk transformation seamlessly, dialing up Phil’s cartoonish arrogance to full volume and hilarious results. He is a monster of hubris who can’t resist trash-talking with 10-year-olds, making parents run laps after questioning his authority and intimidating another team into forfeiting when he and his players show up in blood-soaked aprons.
That’s a real shame because while it may not be Ferrell’s funniest movie, Kicking & Screaming is undoubtedly the best and funniest Will Ferrell movie nobody really talks about or quotes in excess. So the next time you have nothing to do on a Tuesday night, give Kicking & Screaming a shot (it’s currently on Hulu). It may not change your life, but you’re guaranteed to have a good time.
Just remember: Meat first.