Phil Weston's dad, Buck, is a jerky parent, fiercely competitive and forever finding Phil's performance inadequate. It's little wonder that Phil grows up to be a tightly wound ball of suppressed rage and humiliation. When the two men end up coaching their respective 10-year-old sons on rival soccer teams, the years of competitiveness training finally take root. Having nibbled at victory, Phil turns into a crazed, jerky parent himself.
That's the basic premise of Jesse Dylan's family comedy Kicking and Screaming, which feeds this father-son angst through the basic Bad News Bears plot. Of course, Phil's team is the usual ragtag crew of underachieving kids -- wiseasses, wimps and worm-eaters. One player is gigantic, another is about 18 inches high -- with glasses.
Phil, played by the amiable Will Ferrell, has two weapons in his arsenal: a pair of Italian kids (who apparently play an entirely different sort of soccer), and Mike Ditka. Yes, Aliquippa's own "Iron Mike," the legendary NFL player and coach, makes his big-screen debut here playing himself; he agrees to be an assistant coach because he's feuding with Buck (Robert Duvall). Ditka's primary influence, though, is getting the mild-mannered Phil hooked on coffee.
Halfway through the film, Phil essentially goes on a caffeine-fueled drug rampage, tearing through his sunny suburban community like a hopped-up fiend. It's here that the film delivers its few laughs, as Ferrell goes into hyperdrive, insulting kids and adults alike, putting his gangly lump of a body through bizarre paces, and being the sports-parent demon we love to hate.
It's one of the Golden Rules of comedy: Assholes are funnier than nice guys. A crucial function of comedies is to allow us to vicariously indulge in our baser instincts. So when Ferrell turns on the boys, encouraging them to play dirty, or taunting a kid from the opposing team ("I can eat cookies for dinner and you can't, farty pants") -- that's fun.
The film flirts with edgier comedy -- one of the boys has two mommies, for instance -- and there's something vaguely creepy about Buck's manic, competitive machismo with his son, particularly the "ball" subtext. Buck crows about his balls (he runs a sporting goods store); he steals a ball from his young Phil -- a wayward goal kicked by Pele -- that he treats with more respect than his own son; and at a family BBQ, Buck beats his shirtless grown son nearly senseless ... with a tether ball. Very aggressive balls, indeed.
Too bad Dylan didn't indulge his weirder, meaner side more. We surely don't need another lesson in how to play fair; we want to laugh, in spite of our decent selves, when Will Ferrell pushes some poor kid to the ground.