The Squid and the Whale
Rated R, 80 min. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Halley Feiffer, William Baldwin, David Benger.
The opening line lays it all out on the table: "It’s Mom and me versus you and Dad." Young Frank (Kline) is merely delineating sides for a family game of tennis, but when that family – the Berkmans of Park Slope, Brooklyn, circa 1986 – soon after dissolves in divorce, the opposing camps are pretty neatly summarized the same. Fifteen-year-old Walt (Eisenberg) sides with their father, Bernard (Daniels), a once-famous author whose reputation is in freefall. Frank is less obvious about it, but his heart is with his mother, Joan (Linney), whose own writing career is just taking off. There are no heroes here. Bernard is a pompous poseur; Joan, an unapologetic philanderer. Walt’s a mini-Bernard in the making, emulating his father’s soullessness to the point of playing a Pink Floyd song at a high school talent show and passing it off as his own (when pressed, Walt explains, "Well, I felt I could have written it"). And Frank is utterly neglected; among the movie’s many stand-out moments is the tragicomic sight of poor Frank, alone as usual, stripped to his pajama pants and cracking open a beer. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, and the same can be said for writer/director Baumbach’s first feature in eight years (in the meantime, he’s been writing humor pieces for The New Yorker, and co-scripted Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). His first film was the twentysomething cult favorite Kicking and Screaming (on heavy rotation in my own undergrad days), and there’s a logical progression there. The largely autobiographical The Squid and the Whale – and specifically, Baumbach’s stand-in, Walt – could be the teenaged primer of Kicking and Screaming’s overthinking Grover, before he mellowed a hair and discovered pot, his dreamgirl, and the everlasting conundrum of Czech coffee versus beer. (The just-right 16mm stock also lends The Squid and the Whale the once-removed quality of a decade-old home movie.) But The Squid and the Whale is less arch, more self-aware than Baumbach’s debut: The Berkmans are all comical figures, but Baumbach never denies them their humanity. This is humor served not with a smirk but with a helpless shrug. It’s also an expertly acted piece (including William Baldwin in a cameo as a doofy tennis instructor who romances Joan). Kline’s Frank is the sentimental favorite, but it’s Daniel’s ego-bruised Bernard that cuts the deepest. He mostly speaks in that peculiar jargon of a windbag New York intellectual (he could moonlight in a Woody Allen film), in which he declares A Tale of Two Cities "minor Dickens" and declaims his shoddy, post-divorce residence an "elegant house on an elegant block – the fillet of the neighborhood." He’s an asshole, but a wounded one, and it’s no small feat that Baumbach and Daniels collude to create a man, not a mockery, cracking under the strain. Because The Squid and the Whale’s scope is so tightly fixed, it’s the sort of film that’s bound to be labeled "modest," but it packs a hefty emotional wallop. Only the somewhat abrupt ending feels off – intellectually, it’s the film’s rational conclusion, but something in its pacing feels emotionally dissatisfying. Or maybe it was only my own reluctance to leave this battered, brilliantly dysfunctional family behind.
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