The Squid and the Whale

In a director interview, Noah Baumbach says of his newly issued Criterion Collection film, the Squid and the Whale, that he typically finds the writing process laborious but in the scripting of his 2005 film it was a deeply physical experience – exorcising demons that have laid dormant for years. Understandable it is too with the film functioning as a means for him to talk about his parents’ divorce. Baumbach becomes Berkman with Husband, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), and Wife, Joan (Laura Linney), parting ways shattering the relative normality of their children’s (Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline)) lives for a future of split custody and uncertainty.

Both before and after The Squid and the Whale, the dissolution of the American family unit has been commoditised to the point of becoming banal, white noise. Like depression and economic uncertainty, independent filmmakers the world over have presented their takes on these subjects to the extent that there is little meaningful left to say that hasn’t already been discussed 100s of times before it. And while Baumbach doesn’t achieve or strive for anything particularly new, he still stands head and shoulders above the competition thanks to the truths that comes from the telling a deeply personal tale. Depression and change are trotted out like the answers to all the questions and seen this calamitous life event hit its repetitive nadir, however, the realities that come from such a life-changing decision are far less universal.

Moments of stupefying teenage awkwardness litter the film; moments that could only come from the first-hand experience of having your life upended and the confusion that comes from an inability to process. You can frame this with as much philosophical grandstanding as you can stomach, the truth, however, is that the Squid and the Whale is just as funny as it is touching.

There are three scenes that express this beautifully. One scene sees Jeff Daniels talking to his youngest son, Frank, to dissuade him from pursuing Tennis as a career, in which Daniels talks down on the suggestion as something a philistine would follow to deter his son from this path only for him to agree that perhaps he is happy to be a philistine. That is a running theme of the film, as it turns out, to undermine and belittle the so-called superiority of the intellectual. Another scene, on a similar theme, sees a young Jesse Eisenberg passing off Pink Floyd’s Hey You as his own song – stating that he feels like he could’ve written it, the fact that someone wrote it before is a mere technicality. Picking a third is a little more difficult as Baumbach’s film is cluttered with examples; from Owen Kline’s filthy mouth (he is 12), Eisenberg’s half-baked intellectualism where he describes Franz Kafka as Kafka-esque, William Baldwin’s stoner tennis coach, Kline’s library escapades, or Jeff Daniel’s intelligence falling apart whenever he tries to park his car. This deadpan humour makes an increasingly rare issue relatable.

To return to the idea of deflating intellectualism, it is far more complex that pointing its finger and the smartest people and saying “you are stupid too”. It is also used a means to characterise and develop the film past the central divorce. As is often the case with divorce films its either a battle for sole or split custody, and the byproduct of that here is the family splitting in two – Frank (Kline) sticks to his newly minted author Mum and Walt (Eisenberg) to his highbrow failing author Dad. Joan (Laura Linney) has serial affairs while Bernard (Daniels) looks down on everything, an attitude that has been picked up like a relay baton by his elder son. Walt will do anything to keep his Dad happy, even as far as lying to himself and who he is. Eisenberg’s final revelation comes from a profession that his dad looks down on, therefore he has always looked down on, with a poignant and modest scene that inspires the films ostensibly abstract title.

In an interview with Jeff Daniels on this classy criterion collection release, he admits that his acting career has started to slow down around 2005 and his role as the openly pretentious but utterly defeated Bernard rejuvenated his love of the craft and it shows. Daniels’ disappears leaving only the character, a statement furthered by the hand-held camera work and the blistering chemistry he has with the equally glorious Laura Linney. Two titans of modern cinema make a trite tale all the more emotional with performances that justifiably saw the film win Oscar gold. However, the younger half of this four-hander is never overshadowed, and credit where credit is due for the duo of Baumbach’s ability to direct child actors and the strength of the casting process.

If the prospect of another New York indie film fills you with dread, Baumbach’s deeply personal tableau of childhood pain won’t change your mind. Lucky it is then, that there is more to it as is ever the case with the director’s work, whether it is Frances Ha, While We’re Young or even his documentary on Brian De Palma. The raw emotion and honesty of a script more than willing to poke fun at itself and its po-faced characters made this one of the most endearing examples of divorce-cinema and one that all other indie directors should aspire towards.


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