Talk is cheap for most young independent filmmakers, but not for Noah Baumbach, the writer-director of Kicking and Screaming. At 26, he already has a rare gift for lines that sound casual and spontaneous yet spin and glimmer on screen like so many verbal pinwheels. Kicking and Screaming charts the wayward routines of four brainy young slackers who move in together the fall semester after college graduation. That may sound like a contradiction (people who graduate don't have fall semesters), but the fact that these guys insist on carrying on exactly as if they were students is half the joke. The other half is that on a level they'll scarcely acknowledge, they're deeply embarrassed by their predicament. And so they shroud their aimlessness in thickets of wit, triviality, and confessional asides, most of which go by so quickly that you'll do a double take before you see how revealing they are. ''Are you wearing mascara?'' inquires the heartlessly observant Max (Chris Eigeman) of his housemate, the lumbering, insecure Otis (Carlos Jacott). ''No! [Pause. Stricken look. Quiet voice.] Yes.'' The ironies are delivered with straight-faced aplomb, and the rare honest comment is tossed off as if it were a meaningless jape. The hairline between facetiousness and frankness creates an oddball suspense: It's never clear, beneath their polished mockery, just when these jokers are going to tip their hands.
The performers interlock with a dexterity that, at times, rivals that of the Seinfeld ensemble. Eigeman, as always, is a hilarious cold fish, Jacott is a one-man study in self-justifying paralysis (the funniest scene in the movie is his quivering interview for a video-store job), and Jason Wiles is nicely blitzed as a guy who appears to bathe in his own hormones. What distinguishes Baumbach from a raised-eyebrow prankster like Metropolitan's Whit Stillman is that his cleverness conceals a ruefully romantic temperament. Grover (Josh Hamilton), the most pensive of the four, spends his days meditating on his lost girlfriend (Olivia d'Abo), who left him to go to Prague. Any suspicion that this is one more rote story of horny young men is dispelled by the flashbacks between these two. D'Abo's Jane, with her gopherish grin and halting rhythms, is a character who sneaks up on you a blues traveler caught in a postfeminist two-step between shyness and aggression. The final affirmation of this romance is really an affirmation of Baumbach's talent: that a young filmmaker fixated on the solipsistic rituals of guyhood understands the hearts of women, too. B+