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By Pete Vonder Haar | May 14, 2005

Will Ferrell remains one of a handful of former “Saturday Night Live” cast members who has gone on to major box office success as a leading actor. And while he has several memorable films to his credit (Old School and Anchorman chief among them), his biggest starring movie to date was Elf, an innocuous little holiday picture about a refugee from Santa’s Workshop that just happened to gross $175 million domestically.

Ferrell is obviously not an idiot, and 2005 will see him in two more family-friendly movies (by “family-friendly,” I mean “unlikely to feature streaking or cinderblocks tied to genitals”). One of these, the long-delayed “Bewitched” adaptation, bows later this summer and features Ferrell’s Darrin Stephens opposite Nicole Kidman’s Samantha. First up, however, is the soccer comedy “Kicking & Screaming.” In it, Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a hapless suburbanite still living in the shadow of his alpha male father who reluctantly takes up the mantle of youth soccer coach. It’s a film aimed primarily at pre-teens (preferably those who actually play futbol) and their parents.

While I don’t belong to either of those groups, I feel safe in telling you that “Kicking & Screaming” is not very good. I’m sure there are some who will laud the film’s wholesome jocularity and heartwarming message (which we’ve only heard, like, a bazillion times before), but don’t buy it. Ferrell spends the first half of the movie leading us to believe he could go ballistic at any time, and the second half sleepwalking through a watered down series of his trademark antics. As befitting a movie featuring “kicking” in the title, there are also plenty of shots to the groin, which are to American comedy what the “reverse cowboy” is to porn.

As the movie begins, we learn that Phil has always been overshadowed by his father, Buck (Robert Duvall). Buck is more aggressive, more successful, and expresses parental affection by mocking his lack of athletic prowess. Buck owns a string of successful sporting goods stores, Phil owns a vitamin shop. Buck remarried and had another son at the same time Phil and his wife had their firstborn, only Buck’s was an ounce heavier. This is the kind of crap Buck loves to rub Phil’s nose in, and Phil lets him.

Phil’s big chance comes when Buck, coach of the soccer league champion Gladiators, trades away Phil’s son Sam (Dylan McLaughlin) to the Tigers, a last-place team in need of a coach. Phil takes the position on a temporary basis, but soon assumes the job full-time. Trouble is, he’s not very good at it. His wisest early move is hiring his father’s hated neighbor, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka (who looks like he’s reading off-screen cue cards in every scene), to be his assistant. With Ditka’s help, and the timely addition of two neighborhood Italian soccer prodigies, the Tigers are soon on a collision course with the Gladiators for the championship. At the same time, Phil starts adopting a win-at-all costs mindset that jeopardizes his relationship with his son, which was supposedly the reason he took the job in the first place.

Even understanding the audience for which “Kicking & Screaming” is aiming, it’s hard not to notice the flaws. For starters, Phil is one of the most annoying and least sympathetic main characters to grace the big screen in some time, and the biggest plot inconsistency you’ll find is that his wife Barbara (Kate Walsh) has put up with his s**t for as long as she has. If “City Slickers” was an allegedly comedic way for male Baby Boomers to somehow come to terms with the fact that – waahh – life didn’t turn out how they’d hoped, then I guess “Kicking & Screaming” is a gold mine for the male children of those same Baby Boomers wanting to grapple with their daddy issues. Handled in a more adept fashion, this might have enhanced the film, but director Jesse Dylan (American Wedding) evidently prefers to depict Phil as a crybaby.

Then there’s the team, predictably composed of lovable stereotypes: the weirdo, the fat kid, the diminutive Asian, the wise a*s, etc. They tackle adversity and impossible odds through teamwork, and with the help of a coaching montage (showing Phil’s growing skills) and a victory montage (as the Tigers make their improbable run at the playoffs), all set to cutting edge music such as “Let’s Get it Started” and “Eye of the Tiger.” What, no “Let’s Hear It for the Boy?”

If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “Jeez, in a world where we already have ‘Victory,’ ‘The Big Green, and ‘Air Bud 3,’ is there really room for another soccer movie?” The answer, it seems, is “no.” Ferrell is stuck playing straight man to Duvall, Ditka, and a bunch of kids, and seems content to coast by doing a PG-rated Frank the Tank impersonation, minus the drunkenness or catching on fire. And if you’re saying to yourself, “That doesn’t sound very funny,” it’s because “Kicking & Screaming” isn’t.

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