Hippo Manchester
December 22, 2005

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FILM: The Squid and the Whale (R) A-

by Amy Diaz

Two 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 Screaming.

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.

Or 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.

It 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.

In 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.

The 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.