If you just can't wait until July for the remake of "The Bad News Bears" starring Billy Bob Thornton, now you have "Kicking & Screaming," which is the exact same idea on the soccer field starring Will Ferrell.
Those three words - starring Will Ferrell - are essential to the movie's likability. This is not a creative concept. We know that Ferrell, as a reluctant soccer coach, will turn his ragtag band of boys into winners, that victory will come at any cost, that he will rage wildly out of control with the intoxication of power (and, in this case, heavy doses of caffeine) and that he will see the error of his ways just in time to deliver a winning-isn't-everything, just-go-out-there-and-have-fun speech.
All of the above happens in the movie from director Jesse Dylan ("How High," "American Wedding"), which was written by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick ("The Santa Clause" movies). But by now, after "Old School," "Elf" and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," Ferrell has mastered a specific brand of goofy physical comedy. He is fearless. He gives it his all. He can make even the most obvious gag work because there always seems to be the potential for complete insanity simmering beneath his boyishly sweet veneer. The possibility of watching him erupt is a compelling phenomenon.
And he gets plenty of chances to go volcanic here as Phil Weston, a New Agey vitamin shop owner who was intimidated his whole life by his father, Buck (Robert Duvall, goofing on his intense "Great Santini" role). Dad owns a chain of sporting goods stores (where the motto is, "He's got balls!") and is the longtime coach of the neighborhood's dominant soccer team. Dad also recently sent Phil's 10-year-old son, Sam (Dylan McLaughlin), to the last-place Tigers after relegating him to benchwarming duty.
By filling in as the Tigers' coach, Phil gets a chance not only to give his son some playing time, but to show his own father that he's not a complete loser. But he's saddled with a motley crew, including the shy Byong Sun (Elliot Cho, a source of unexpected joy), who's the adopted son of a lesbian couple (Rachael Harris and Laura Kightlinger); the awkwardly wisecracking Mark (Steven Anthony Lawrence), who resembles Peppermint Patty from the "Peanuts" cartoons; and Connor (Dallas McKinney), the goalie who needs glasses.
These boys are not exactly bending it like Beckham. They actually run in the other direction when the opposing team comes charging down the field.
But Phil gets help from former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka who says yes only to get revenge on Buck, his next-door neighbor and nemesis. In his first major film role, Ditka (as Ditka) is one of the best things about "Kicking & Screaming." He has a huge part, he seems totally confident and appears to be having a great time riffing on his own image. Granted, he's playing himself, but that's not necessarily the easiest thing to do. (See: Mariah Carey in "Glitter.")
Once Phil and Ditka recruit a couple of soccer prodigies from Italy who work at the local butcher shop (Francesco Liotti and Alessandro Ruggiero) and build the entire offense around them, the Tigers start climbing up the standings. Dylan depicts this through a series of obligatory montages - the practice montage, the game montage, the joking-around-off-the-field montage - until they make it to the finals where they must face... you guessed it, Buck's team.
Predictable? Sure. And the editing is choppy and the jokes get repetitive and the soundtrack unfortunately includes the Black Eyed Peas' ubiquitous "Let's Get It Started." But it's also sweet, well-intentioned and very observant. Any kid who's ever played organized sports - and any parent of a kid who's ever played organized sports - will see something warmly familiar here.
"Kicking & Screaming," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG for thematic elements, language and some crude humor. Running time: 90 minutes. Two stars out of four.
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