The Squid and the Whale
2005Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline
an, divorce must suck.
I can’t speak from experience, you understand. I’ve never been married, let alone divorced, and my own parents have been together for over thirty-five years. Which always made me feel a bit odd, come to think of it, considering that the wreckage of broken parental relationships came to define the lives of many of my childhood friends and acquaintances. Bizarrely, it looked from afar like a rite of passage—if your folks split up, you as a kid automatically became aware of some of life’s most brutal truths (that love doesn’t always last forever, that the people you care most about can do you immense emotional harm, that you can be screwed despite not being guilty of anything in particular), and consequently developed an element of jaded cynicism that, to a little kid, looks like the highest of grown-up wisdom. It was almost like getting your first leather jacket.
It’s only when I got older that I began to partially grasp the impact that divorce had on my contemporaries, and any delusional notions of punk-rock authenticity I may have associated with parental breakups vanished rather quickly. Even so, the full reality of an ingrained childhood assumption—that your parents would always function as a kind of inseparable, authoritative unit—collapsing before your helpless eyes was never something I truly gained access to, even intellectually. But to the extent that any movie can, The Squid and the Whale takes us inside that emotional maelstrom, with results as tragic, heartbreaking, unsettling, and absurdly hilarious as major life changes usually are. If The Squid and the Whale, which depicts the collapse of a family in 1986 Brooklyn, doesn’t represent something authentic about the experiences of divorced families, well, it sure fooled me.
The genius of this film is that it is able to take what is essentially a kid’s-eye view of the subject while also remaining universally sympathetic and deeply ironic. The movie is primarily a comedy, of all things, and often a gut-busting one at that. But it establishes such a beautifully modulated sense of tone that director Noah Baumbach is able to shift seamlessly from humor to pathos and back again without the audience so much as noticing. The overall effect is to achieve that rarest of filmmaker accomplishments—the audience’s feelings towards each character are complex and layered, rather than split into the usual simple-minded categories of “I like him” or “I hate her.”
Take Bernard (Jeff Daniels) the would-be patriarch of the disintegrating Berkman family. As written by Baumbach, Bernard is a pretentious ass, a fading literary star with tenure at a New York university who seems to do more name-dropping than actual writing (at one point he breezily identifies Kafka as “one of my predecessors”). Moreover, Bernard’s condescending treatment of his wife Joan (Laura Linney) is so blatantly disrespectful that when it is revealed she has been sleeping with another man for four years, one’s first question is why the affair didn’t begin sooner. But over the course of the film, Bernard is revealed as not an evil or even callous man, but rather a nice guy with good intentions whose main flaw is an enormous blind spot to the effect his actions can have on other people (including his sons—one of the better running gags in the film is Bernard’s careless use of conversational profanity in front of his kids, which of course leads to the younger tyke swearing like a sailor whenever he gets agitated). By the end of the film, Bernard is seen as something of a blinkered romantic idealist, albeit one whose conceptions of male-female relationships seem to emerge more from Godard films and existential literature than from the realities of human interaction.
Baumbach clearly devoted most of his creative energies to exploring the complexities and contradictions of Bernard, because his other characters aren’t seen in quite as much depth. Joan, Laura Linney’s frustrated mother and wife, is seen primarily as a woman tired of playing lieutenant to Bernard’s fading general. A gifted writer herself, her emerging critical and popular acceptance is too much for Bernard (who can’t even get his latest manuscript published), and Joan has long since become sick of the condescending treatment and emotional neglect suffered at the hands of her Superstar Intellectual husband, leading her first to a series of illicit lovers, and, eventually, to the end of their marriage. It’s an interesting dynamic, but a rather straightforward one (notwithstanding some good laughs derived from Joan’s questionable taste in post-divorce men), and Baumbach made a wise choice in devoting the better part of his story to Bernard’s struggles—he’s the one who seems totally incapable of making it on his own, and he’s the one whose attempts to reach out to his kids after the divorce are as endearingly pathetic as they are mildly disturbing (example: when his older son mentions that he’s going to the movies with some friends, Bernard jumps at the opportunity to get out of his dreary, unpainted new apartment and invites himself along. His son wants to see Short Circuit—Bernard suggests Blue Velvet, leading to a classic scene in which a handful of young adolescents gaze uncomfortably at Isabella Rosselini’s sadomasochistic canoodlings while an oblivious Bernard happily munches popcorn).
Then there are the kids, through whose eyes the story is seen. Baumbach, whose personal experiences the story is based on, clearly represents himself in the character of Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), a sixteen-year old whose already fumbling attempts at romance and maturity are further compromised by the emotional turmoil going on back at home. Awed by his father’s assured intellectualism, he attempts to emulate Bernard, awkwardly commenting on books and authors he’s never read (Walt: “that book was a little Kafka-esque.” Girlfriend: “It should be—it’s written by Franz Kafka.”). Walt and his younger brother Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin) are both screwed up by the divorce, although they act out in different ways—Walt by desperately trying to appear “adult” before he’s really ready, including a remarkably self-destructive attempt to pass off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own composition, and Frank by masturbating and smearing his semen in increasingly public places, notably on the front of a school locker (woe to the unfortunate janitorial soul who made that discovery). Both children are sweet kids at heart, and they are lucky enough to have parents who genuinely love them, although it takes some time for them (and us) to truly figure this out.
The Squid and the Whale is a remarkably heartfelt, funny, and assured film. Noah Baumbach, last seen collaborating with Wes Anderson on the semi-successful The Life Aquatic, in addition to the post-graduate ennui debut film Kicking and Screaming, has clearly found the material he’s most comfortable working with. He should—he lived it, after all. For all the hilarity and ironic asides of this film, the heart of The Squid and the Whale’s greatness is its emotional resonance. The characters seem deeply real, and the script is located within a discernible, specific, and idiosyncratic time and place (Park Slope, Brooklyn, to the delight of this South Brooklyn resident). This is an eighty-minute portrayal of a group of lovable, confused, fucked-up people who have a habit of making poor choices. But God, do we ever root for them.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2005-11-11