The Squid And The Whale

The Squid And The Whale


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

"Mum and me versus you and dad!", shouts 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), and so begins a game of doubles tennis that exposes all the faultlines within the Berkman family. Frank's 16-year-old brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) clearly idolises their father, even though Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is aggressive, underhand and a very sore loser. Frank sides with his mother Joan (Laura Linney), who quietly suffers - and quietly wins.

This opening scene to Noah Baumbach's The Squid And The Whale encapsulates all the film's strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, it is a marvel of filmic compression, deftly showing the tensions, alignments and rivalries between these four characters in just a few volleys of a tennis ball across a court. On the other hand, so successful in its economy is this snapshot of the family's disintegrating dynamics that it leaves the rest of the film with nothing to do but replay its opening at greater length and on a slightly grander scale.

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The Squid And The Whale may be a finely observed portrait of human foibles, full of subtlety and wit, but once its first five minutes are over, it becomes a film in which corroborative details merely accumulate, without ever being coloured by anything like an unexpected development or a narrative surprise.

Tracing the effects that Bernard and Joan's inevitable separation has on their impressionable and confused sons at a time when the boys' hormones are already running riot, The Squid And The Whale treads a delicate line between drama and comedy, so painful are its laughs and yet so absurd its characters' tragedies. If the film has a narrative arc at all, it is Walt's rite of passage as he gradually comes to recognise what is plain for any adult viewer to see: that his beloved father is also a monster of oblivious self-absorption, deluded pomposity and abject failure.

As Walt's journey gradually distances him from his father, it brings him closer to his mother, whose undoubted problems with marital fidelity become all too easy to understand once Bernard has come into sharp focus; and while Frank also has some growing up to do, he never wavers in his preference for mummy.

In this way, the portrayal of the couple's split is firmly weighted in Joan's favour, somewhat reducing the scenario's dramatic potential, although there is ample compensation for this in Baumbach's acerbic dialogue and the unflinching performances of the cast. Daniels in particular, having already played a flawed father to perfection in Imaginary Heroes, captures every nuance of Bernard's odiousness, in an understated and deeply unflattering piece of acting; and Eisenberg's Walt combines adolescent uncertainty with pretentious arrogance, in a studied caricature of his father's very worst qualities.

Like the diorama in New York's Museum of Natural History from which the film's title is derived, The Squid And The Whale depicts deep-seated conflict in a manner that is at once exquisitely lifelike and mesmerisingly awful to look at. It also, however, resembles the Museum's display in that it is a strangely static affair - more a revealing family photo than a moving picture. It will leave you either in awe of its casual craft, or else wondering just what it is that you missed in it.

Reviewed on: 06 Apr 2006
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Breaking up is hard to do - especially for the kids.
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Read more The Squid And The Whale reviews:

David Stanners ****
The Exile ****

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Halley Feiffer, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin

Year: 2005

Runtime: 81 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Sundance 2005

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