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GENERATION GAB

Now comes 25-year-old Noah Baumbach to say his comic piece for the generation that disdains the label "X." As a spokesman--at least for the affluent, white, college-grad segment of the group--his credentials are all in order: Recent degree from upscale Vassar (yes, they've had boys there for years), fashionably hip posture, passing acquaintance with the works of Jean-Luc Godard, standard youth fear that he'll spend the rest of his life working in a video store.

What else would you need to crank out a Nineties first feature? Maybe the moxie of a Brooklyn native. Okay--that's on Baumbach's resume, too. But audiences will take to Kicking and Screaming, I suspect, in direct proportion to their enthusiasm for the X-er party line: Mom and Dad suck; there are no jobs out there; society has failed us. In other words, the same basic lament twentieth-century America has heard from every new generation.

Clearly, Baumbach has talent. It's not easy to juggle a dozen characters, much less give them all some wit, but he manages this with easy grace--at least in spots. His setting is an unnamed college in an unspecified town (Poughkeepsie, perhaps?), where four graduating seniors are busy trying not to think about the future. Max (Denver native Chris Eigeman), Grover (Josh Hamilton), Otis (Carlos Jacott) and Skippy (Jason Wiles) are the kind of overbonded buddies who wile away their time playing trivia games ("Name six empiricist philosophers!" "Name eight movies in which monkeys play a major role!") and avoiding the issue of ever leaving campus.

Just like the movie, they're smart and tart in a literary kind of way--downright snotty, sometimes. But the cast is energetic, and there's something touching in this tangle of quandaries: Cynical about their sex lives, baffled by the world beyond and, in their view, uselessly educated, these kids are treading water until something real can happen. But they fear it never will.

When the obsessive-compulsive Otis goes back for his second interview at a video store, the manager asks him: "What are your influences?" When Grover's cut-loose girlfriend, Jane (Olivia d'Abo), calls from Prague, he can't listen to the phone message all the way through. When one of these high-toned slackers breaks a beer glass in the kitchen, no one cleans it up. Instead, a message appears over the mess: "Broken glass."

The movie's likable teenage townie, Kate (Cara Buono), needs no such evasions: While one of the college boys cowers, she stands her ground with a local redneck in a fight for a parking place. She goes to work every day. She survives. Meanwhile, the J. Alfred Prufrocks of senior year secretly wonder if they'll wind up like Chet (Eric Stoltz)--nine years of college but still tending bar here in town, flinging bits of Schopenhauer at beer-sodden locals. In Poughkeepsie, or wherever it is, everyone's scared of growing up and moving on, including the girlfriends.

Baumbach has decorated Kicking and Screaming with enough film-class jump cuts and new-wave-style ploys to convince us he's serious in a Europeanized kind of way. And his dialogue is almost too clever for its own good--sounds plucked from an undergrad short story. The strength of the movie lies in its substrata comedy--the sense of crisis in twentysomethings who don't yet know that the crisis will pass, that they won't really have to rent Clint Eastwood movies to strangers when they're sixty years old.

They'll find their way, just like Baumbach himself is doing. For now, though, we get a pretty good view of limbo. Just don't mark it with an

 
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