December 22, 2005
The Squid and the Whale (R)
by Amy Diaz
kids in mid-1980s Brooklyn take their parents’ divorce extremely hard in
the awkwardly charming family dramady The Squid and the Whale, a film
written and directed by Noah Baumbach — cowriter of The Life Aquatic
with Steve Zissou and writer and director of 1995’s Kicking and
Baumbach has a real feel for language and how it allies and separates
people. In Kicking and Screaming, a story about post-college confusion,
it is observed by the girlfriend of one of a group of guys who continue
to hang out with each other after college that they all talk they same.
She’s right — it’s their own secret language of over-educated,
ambitionless floundering, of using irony to mask fear. For a while at
least, it keeps them safe. In The Squid and the Whale, language helps to
cement the bond between 16-year-old Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) and
his father Bernard (Jeff Daniels). Bernard is a bloviating literature
professor, still terribly impressed with himself even though his star
(he wrote novels, none of which has been published for a while) is
fading. He is tremendously fond of talking about the “dense” nature of
literature (The Great Gatsby and David Copperfield, but not A Tale of
Two Cities, which he deems a work of “minor Dickens”). Walt regurgitates
his father’s inanities in a similarly desperate attempt to impress.
to establish his superiority to the mere morals, the philistines as his
father calls them, who aren’t nearly intellectual enough. Both Bernard
and Walt, without saying so directly, seem to count their wife and
mother Joan (Laura Linney) as one of these lesser beings. She has a
story published in a literary journal but Walt assures his younger
brother Frank (Owen Kline) that Dad is the better writer. Bernard,
though he can’t get published, is indignant when his wife doesn’t take
as gospel his notes on her work.
isn’t at all shocking (not to us, not to Walt and Frank) that they
divorce. For reasons that have as much to do with Bernard’s control
issues as with his parental concern, the boys are shared between parents
via a ridiculously complicated joint-custody agreement. While Joan, the
instigator, more or less, of the divorce, seems to be enjoying her
freedom and a career that picks up steam, Bernard slips into a sort of
sad sack middle-aged-intellectual cliché. His house — which he claims is
on a street that is the “filet of the neighborhood” — is crumbling and
sparsely furnished. He starts the most pathetic kind of affair with his
teasing student Lili (Anna Paquin), a girl who also enchants Walt. And,
in his efforts to shore up the support of his oldest son, he seems
relatively dismissive of Frank, who sides more with his mother anyway.
addition to striking out against one of their parents (Walt yells at
Joan for her infidelity; Frank rather accurately pegs his father with a
string of highly imaginative swears), the boys both lurch extremely
awkwardly toward sexual awakening — Walt gets a girlfriend he then
spends time putting down in subtle ways (even though it is him,
ultimately, who is afraid of intimacy) and Frank, er, discovers himself.
The boys also act up at school and are even snotty to each other —
natural responses, really, to your world dissolving.
Squid and the Whale gives us a very genuine family — full of faults and
petty divides and a serious lack of understanding how to deal with each
other now that the habit of all living together had been broken. Both
Linney and Daniels do a superlative job of keeping their characters from
turning into cartoons and, even at their most selfish moments, allowing
us to see the flesh-and-blood people beneath the ridiculous mannerisms.
It’s the halting, uncertain quality of almost all their interactions
(often masked by a kind of defensive snottiness) that makes the movie
funny, and relatable, in a way that is both squirm-inducing and
reassuring. Without the syrup or the silliness of a movie like The
Family Stone, we can be relieved in the fact that, yes, all families are
this messed up.