The Squid And The Whale

The Squid And The Whale


Reviewed by: The Exile

"Me and Mom against you and Dad," instructs 12-year-old Frank Berkman (Owen Kline), organising the family tennis game that opens The Squid And The Whale. And when his father, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and 16-year-old brother, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) position themselves across the net from Frank and his mother, Joan (Laura Linney), the scene prepares us for the hostilities to come. Right from the start, the battle lines are drawn.

In his fourth feature, writer/director Noah Baumbach exorcises the demons of his own adolescence, specifically those connected with the divorce of his parents, novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown. The result is a tragically funny glimpse of a family in meltdown, made all the more excruciating by the veneer of sophistication blanketing everyone involved. Sitting their sons down in a civilized manner, Joan and Bernard announce their intention to separate. "It's your mother's idea," blurts Bernard, whose childish need to point the finger reveals the well of insecurity in which the marriage has drowned.

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A complacent professor and once-lauded author, who hasn't had a bestseller in years, Bernard is galled by his wife's burgeoning writing career. Meanwhile, his own talent has long since congealed in cultural pretension and sneering elitism. When not dividing the world into intellectuals (those who like books and arthouse movies) and philistines (everyone else), Bernard lusts halfheartedly after a star-struck grad student (Anna Paquin) and whines to his children about their mother's many affairs. A monster of parental narcissism, Bernard insists on a complicated system of joint custody even though fathering is an inconvenience at best. Naturally, Walt adores him.

Expertly juggling pathos and humour, Baumbach has created a queasy tug-of-war between surface civility and subterranean resentment. With a tiny budget and just 23 days, he shot most of his scenes in a Brooklyn brownstone, belonging to a childhood friend, and used his parents' books to line the walls. He even dressed Daniels in his father's real clothes. This attention to authenticity has given the film an ache of honesty and experience. Its scenes echo with dislocation and what it feels like when your life is suddenly unmoored.

Shuttling bitterly between their mother in Park Slope and their father's dilapidated flat in Prospect Park, Walt and Frank argue over the family cat and express their pain in unique - in Frank's case, uniquely disgusting - ways. Their misery is palpable without ever becoming sentimental and both boys are astonishingly good. Eisenberg in particular - so amazing as the sweet-natured nephew in Roger Dodger - is heartbreaking as a teen trying to hold on to childish worship of a larger-than-life father. His shoulders tight with misery, Walt seeks approval by parroting Bernard's freeze-dried literary opinions and rejecting his perfectly nice girlfriend (Halley Feiffer) on Bernard's advice ("You can do better"). This is a movie that understands a child's need to blame one parent and ally with the other, no matter how pathetic or undeserving.

The often-underrated Daniels is being widely praised for his portrayal of Bernard, achieved mostly by an excess of facial hair, indolent body language and passive/aggressive line readings. But the truth is that the role doesn't give him much to work with. The character has no arc; he's a plateau, an underwritten blob of self-regard, who dumps his neuroses on his kids and then is stunned when they act out. His wife, though more emotionally demonstrative, wouldn't pass any parenting class, either. No sooner is Bernard out of her bed than Frank's tennis coach (an appealingly goofy William Baldwin) has jumped right in.

The Squid And The Whale takes its title from a disturbing diorama at Manhattan's Museum of Natural History, called Clash Of The Titans (which is exactly what divorce must feel like to a child). Blunt, unforgiving, and realistically unresolved, Squid is less a story of marital breakup than father/son realignment - letting go of a fantasy parent in order to accept a real one. It's called growing up.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 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 ****
Anton Bitel ***1/2

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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