In 1998, Will Farrell announced his transition from Saturday Night Live figurehead to Hollywood personality with the SNL spin-off “A Night at the Roxbury,” in which Farrell reprised his role as Steve Butabi in a film which, frankly, was too one-dimensional for a five minute sketch, much less an 80-minute movie. Undeterred, Farrell launched into a career bolstered primarily by his ability to breathe first-rate humor into utter mediocrity, a skill that not only guaranteed Farrell a dedicated fan base, but also defined the modern face of the Hollywood comedy.
As such, it is impossible to determine whether his brand of off-the-cuff jocularity is rehearsed to perfection or just a natural facet of this deceptively innocent prankmeister’s fa�ade. Even harder to pin down are his choice of movies, which, unlike fellow SNL’ers who have made the leap, are bafflingly diverse. Following “Roxbury,” Farrell has appeared in everything from Andrew Fleming’s smart political satire “Dick” to buddy Ben Stiller’s inane “Zoolander,” from “Starsky and Hutch” to Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda.”
But what Farrell handles with perhaps the most finesse is the oft-overlooked family-friendly comedy. 2003’s unexpectedly sublime “Elf” proved that, and his latest, “Kicking and Screaming,” will score Farrell yet another goal. In this saccharine-tinged underdog romp, Farrell plays Phil Weston, an awkwardly charming soccer dad who, as can be expected, exhibits far more spirit than any of the pint-sized players on his son’s soccer team. Discouraged by the lack of playing time given to his son, Weston decides to become a coach himself, and embarks on the requisite journey of self discovery, tolerance and unflinching bathroom humor that pockmarks even the best of the “Bad News Bears”-rooted films.
What separates this otherwise forgettable flick, naturally, is the panache with which Farrell pulls off what has been attempted unsuccessfully many times before. The funniest moments in the movie (and Farrell’s entire career), are when he spills scalding-hot coffee on himself, gets beaten up by kids, gets his clock cleaned in a violent tether-ball game, and, quite simply, undergoes it all with that decidedly man-child demeanor that is inextricable from his on-screen persona. But somehow, perhaps mystifyingly, he has never come across as a one-trick pony. There is just enough subtlety to every inflection, movement and inappropriate outburst to lend refreshing originality to every one of his on-screen appearances.
This is not to say that “Kicking and Screaming” is a modern comedic masterpiece. The fact remains that, below the surface, family films can never shed the swampish torpor of, well, being family films. In Hollywood’s unceasing quest to find the holy grail of the box office that will appeal to every single member of the U.S. nuclear family, it has sacrificed the thing that makes movies entertaining, and even just watch-able. Will Farrell, then, is an avatar of the people, a savior who doesn’t appear to have any of the standards that keep his peers from films like these – and thank God. Otherwise, people like Sinbad would still have careers, and moviegoing families the world over would be doomed.