It is a funny thing about movie cliches–when a film isn’t working, the tendency is to point them out as a signal to its utter lack of imagination. However, when a film is working, those very same familiar elements are hardly noticeable. The new film “Kicking and Screaming”is in the grand tradition of “The Bad News Bears,” “The Mighty Ducks” and every other film in which a rag-tag bunch of adorably dorky kids band together in order to triumph at some sport and if there is an original moment in it, I must have overlooked it. However, it is made with such good humor and spirits that I really didn’t mind that the entire thing seemed to be on auto-pilot from the opening frames to the wacky closing credits.Will Ferrell stars as a sports-challenged doofus who winds up coaching his son’s soccer team–partly out of a sense of father-son bonding and partly to get back at his own hard-ass father (Robert Duvall–yes, Robert Duvall), the coach of the reigning champions. For the most part, predictable jokes occur (Ferrell trips over a variety of objects, the kids do various gross things and soccer balls are slammed into body parts that should not have soccer balls slammed into them), predictable lessons are learned (stuff about teamwork and having fun and the like) and predictable songs are heard on the soundtrack. The closest thing to a tragic subplot occurs when the caffiene-free Ferrell inadvertently becomes a java junkie and eventually begins mainlining espresso before bottoming out.
And yet, despite all of that, I found myself frequently amused–more so than I might have expected from most films combing those elements–because of two inspired additions to the mix. The first is Ferrell–while he doesn’t quite hit the manic heights that he achieved in “Anchorman,” he puts an amusing spin on the more timeworn material and occasionally hits upon a nugget or two of comic gold: my favorite is the moment when he offers to name professional athletes that were able to learn to speak English by playing sports and comes up with a list including, among others, Sammy Sosa, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvis Costello. The other is the hilarious turn by Mike Ditka (yes, Mike Ditka) playing himself as a longtime enemy of Duvall’s who becomes Ferrell’s assistant coach. Trust me, this isn’t the beginning of a new career for him–he does the same thing to the art of acting here that he does for singing when he does “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”–but he is clearly having a blast at goofing on his public persona and even the most virulent anti-Ditka opponents will find themselves amused by his performance.It probably won’t go down as a classic in the mode of the original “Bad News Bears” and I suspect that I will forget most of it in a day or so–however, having seen both it and the “Longest Yard” remake virtually back-to-back, I can comfortably say that if you see only one sports-themed movie starring a “SNL” alumnus this summer, make it “Kicking and Screaming.”