Few could have predicted that Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, or Adam Sandler would ever be taken seriously as actors, so hear me out when I say that Will Ferrell, over the next decade, could make a similar transformation. You get the latest hint of that deeper, committed talent — the humanist behind the prankster’s mask — in Kicking & Screaming, even if the movie itself is just a klutzy, broad, and genially dumbed-down kiddie-sports comedy. As Phil Weston, a wimpy suburban vitamin salesman who becomes the maniacally competitive coach of his 10-year-old’s soccer team, Ferrell takes a character who was probably never much more than a concept on a screenwriter’s Post-it note and invests it with a buzz of desperation and anger, a mild-guy-goes-nutzoid arc it scarcely deserved.
Playing Phil the emasculated New Millennium Dad, ridiculed by his macho-jock father (Robert Duvall), Ferrell makes himself into the clown prince of girlyman domestic masochism. When Phil’s own son, Sam (Dylan McLaughlin), joins the Tigers, a team of local losers, Phil steps forward to coach, if only because no one else will take the job. Attempting to whip a bunch of outcasts — a worm eater, a hippie nerd, and so forth — into shape, he guzzles coffee the way that Beavis once did cappuccino, using the caffeine high to catapult himself into a kind of tough-dad catharsis. Ferrell weeps like a baby; he bares his jelly belly in a tetherball death match; he vents the frustration of the damned by spitting out phrases like ”mother of pearl!”; he even blurts ’90s techno-pop so that the soundtrack doesn’t have to. Kicking & Screaming may be a prefab cartoon out of the Bad News Bears cookie cutter, but Ferrell doesn’t just save this junk — he rules it.