The Young and the Restless

Movies about attractive twentysomethings sitting around talking about themselves have been all the rage lately. You could take everything that happens in Slacker, Reality Bites, Clerks, Before Sunrise, Bodies, Rest & Motion, Sleep With Me, and Barcelona and pack it into one movie and you still wouldn't have as much plot development as can be found in any Preston Sturges film. Slacker director Richard Linklater has forged a career out of making movies in which a) nothing happens, but b) the characters say a lot of amusing things.

Kicking and Screaming and The Pompatus of Love, both of which enjoy their South Florida premieres this week at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, belong on that list as well. The former film follows the trials and tribulations of four recently graduated college pals as they take their first tentative steps into adulthood; the latter tracks four guys a little further along in calendar years, although they're equally as clueless as Kicking and Screaming's quartet in matters of the heart. Both films owe an obvious debt to Barry Levinson's 1982 Diner, which just keeps looking better with age.

Since, by definition, one cannot experience midlife crisis until one has entered midlife, the confusion enveloping the four protagonists of Kicking and Screaming could more accurately be termed prelife crisis. "I wish we were just going off to war," says the perpetually bemused Max (Barcelona's Chris Eigeman). "Or retiring. I wish I was just retiring after a lifetime of hard labor."

Max and his pals are a sharp and funny bunch whose anxiety over what comes next dominates their lives. Bright and talented, they stand poised at the threshold of adulthood, with all the possibility that life has to offer laid out ahead of them. They should be excited. Instead, the pressure of making the right choices weighs heavily on all of them. Grover (Josh Hamilton), an aspiring writer, plunges into internal turmoil when his beautiful, adventurous girlfriend Jane decides to spend a year studying abroad in Prague. (Grover: "You're making a terrible mistake!" Jane: "You've never even been to Prague." Grover: "Oh, I've been to Prague. Well, I haven't been to Prague, but I know that thing, that stop-shaving-your-armpits-read-The Unbearable Lightness of Being-fall-in-love-with-a-sculptor-and-now-I-realize-how-bad-American-coffee-is thing. Prague...you'll come back a bug!") Grover cannot find his bearings no matter how many nubile coeds he beds in an attempt to erase Jane from his memory; nor can he summon the courage to go to Czechoslovakia and join her.

Skippy (Jason Wiles) desperately clings to the comfortable routines of college, chief among them his girlfriend Miami (Parker Posey), who still has a year of undergraduate coursework to finish. Otis (Carlos Jacott) cannot bring himself to leave his friends and board the plane for the flight that will deliver him to graduate school in Milwaukee. And then there's Chet (Eric Stoltz), a "philosophy-German" student beginning his tenth undergraduate year and proud of his tenure. He serves as both a role model and a warning to recent grads who, while they admire his ability to prolong campus life indefinitely, don't want to find themselves pouring drinks at the local watering hole and boring patrons with discussions of their thesis.

Twenty-five-year-old novice writer-director Noah Baumbach, not all that chronologically removed from his characters, deftly illuminates the dilemmas these charming, intelligent, young men find themselves in. Chief among Baumbach's tools is sharp dialogue that captures the vulnerability and doubt plaguing his characters. "What you used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life," quips Max.

But Max and his buddies (with the possible exception of Chet, who no one really wants to end up like) know they're living on borrowed time. The film gets maximum comic mileage out of their desperate vacillation. Ultimately, however, even these clever, engaging slackers find themselves dragged kicking and screaming into the fray.

Remember that annoying song "The Joker" by Steve Miller? "Some people call me the space cowboy . . . " et cetera. Picture four guys in their late twenties -- a poet, a playboy, a plumber, and a platitude-spouting psychologist -- who have nothing better to do than sit around a bar discussing the meaning of the term "pompatus," which Miller uses in "The Joker" and which has for decades confounded anyone foolish enough to analyze the lyrical content of Miller's songwriting. (This is Steve Miller, after all, an unconscionably successful pop-rock hack whose wordsmithery reached its apogee in the song "Take the Money and Run" when he rhymed "Texas" with "facts is.")

The Pompatus of Love is to Diner what Steve Miller is to Bob Dylan. Call it Diner Lite. The movie, while witty and ingratiating, feels thin and MTV-slick, which should probably come as no surprise because music-video veteran Richard Schenkman directed it. The cast is lightweight too: Adrian Pasdar, Jon Cryer, and cameos by Jennifer Tilly and Roscoe Lee Browne.

Equally superficial are the protagonists' dilemmas: Mark (the shrink) writes unsuccessful self-improvement books when he isn't overanalyzing his relationship with sultry Tasha; Phil (the plumber) loves his wife and family but is tempted to check out the fixtures of Caroline, the mysterious Englishwoman who flirts with him at his store; Josh (the playboy) sleeps with a bevy of beauties but blows a shot at true love with Cynthia when he stands her up on their first date to indulge a long-simmering infatuation with Phil's married sister; Runyon (the poet) whines and pines for the woman who moved to L.A. and left him behind.

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