Kicking & Screaming

Will Ferrell is really two different but closely related people. One of them is buttoned-down and verbally astute, able to earn laughs through an oddly worded understatement while doing nothing more physical than opening his eyes widely. The other one is a manic, carefully controlled slapstick clown, someone who can erupt into a hilarious fit of anger, joy, or any other emotion while retaining possession of his faculties. While Jim Carrey goes nuts and appears to be a man possessed, Ferrell remains Ferrell-esque when he lapses into physical comedy, always maintaining the demeanor of a naive man-child who likes to use his words as much as his body.

Both Will Ferrells are in “Kicking & Screaming,” a perfectly serviceable family comedy about a man who faces his overly competitive father when the two become kids-league soccer coaches. Phil Weston is essentially the ordinary Ferrell, a sedate man who owns a vitamin store and lives a pleasant, unambitious life with his wife Barbara (Kate Walsh) and young son Sam (Dylan McLaughlin). The only dark spot in Phil’s life is his father, Buck (Robert Duvall), a fiercely competitive man for whom Phil has never been good enough. Phil was a klutz in sports; Buck owns a sporting goods store. Phil married an attractive woman; Buck, a divorcee, married a prettier one the same year. When they had sons at the same time, Buck’s weighed one ounce more.

Reluctantly, Phil takes over Sam’s untalented, perpetually defeated soccer team when the regular coach abandons them. Knowing nothing about competition or how to inspire others to victory, he recruits his dad’s next-door-neighbor and arch-nemesis to help him. The man happens to be Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka (playing himself), and he’s only too happy to help Phil’s team beat Buck’s.

Gradually, Phil becomes the other, wilder Ferrell, thanks in part to his increasingly fervent desire to defeat his dad, and also to Ditka introducing him to coffee. (“What is that heavenly aroma?” Phil asks in childlike wonderment while passing a coffeehouse. Soon he is an over-caffeinated madman.) By the last act — when Phil’s and Buck’s teams face each other in the league finals, of course — Ferrell is in full tilt, caroming around the soccer-field sidelines with abandon. When he steps onto the field and blatantly, purposely pushes an opposing player down, it’s not appalling, the way it would be if an adult had done it; it’s hilarious. Ferrell is a grown-up, but he seems like an innocent, hyper-active little boy.

This is why “Elf” was such a great movie for him, and why “Kicking & Screaming,” while not brilliant, is still a wise choice. It plays to his strengths: his Everyman normality that made him a worthy successor to Phil Hartman on “SNL” (you could put him in ANY sketch, as jokester or straightman, and he’d blend in), as well as his gift for silly, merry lunacy.

The film, written by “Santa Clause” scribes Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick and directed by Jesse Dylan (of the third “American Pie” film), has a slight edge to its comedy here and there, but it keeps it subversive and still within the confines of the PG rating. And it delights in whimsical, giggly oddness, as in Phil’s recruitment of two Italian boys as soccer-expert ringers who are forever referred to as “the Italians,” as in, “Pass it to the Italians!” (the team’s only successful game strategy). I also love the tiny Asian boy, Byong Sun (Elliot Cho), whom Phil hopes will join up with the large Ambrose (Erik Walker) and become a “mega-person.” Such nonsense can be sublime indeed when placed in the hands of someone like Ferrell.

B (1 hr., 38 min.; PG, a few hells and damns, some mild innuendo.)