Friday, April 20, 2012

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

USA, 81 minutes
Director/writer: Noah Baumbach
Photography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Britta Phillips, Dean Wareham, Pink Floyd
Editor: Tim Streeto
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, Halley Feiffer, William Baldwin

I'm not entirely sure where to start with Noah Baumbach's breakthrough picture—it's fair to call it his breakthrough picture, isn't it? Anyway, the coming-of-age story won a load of attention at film festivals and in various indie circles at the time, even getting an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. It's self-consciously small and personal, laced with autobiographical elements, recounting the breakdown of a mid-'80s family living in Brooklyn. They are self-styled intellectuals, with various talents for and pretensions to the New York literary life of the time.

The period detail is one of the best points, lightly but expertly touching on various academic preoccupations (and/or pretensions) I had forgotten, which surprised me even as I recognized them. Billed as a comedy, it's of course more relentlessly observational comedy of manners than barrel-of-monkeys laff fest, charting the heartbreaking attempts of its characters to connect; even just a little dignity would do. It can be heartlessly depressing, and often hard to watch.

But something there strikes a chord—the characters grow more and less sympathetic by turns, and it's not hard to recognize and identify with each, in their moments, even as they remain pitted against one another. I find it a good deal more tender than the other picture I've seen by Baumbach, Margot at the Wedding. This is evidently not a happy person to start with. Maybe that's what I'm getting out of The Squid and the Whale. By attacking his own story, perhaps it's harder for Baumbach to be as callously cruel as he can be to his characters, whom he knows (and may love in spite of himself), including some instinctive auto-reflexive protection reserved for himself. In the end it gets to be a bit of a mess—but at that it's almost perfectly realized.

Husband, father, and failed novelist Bernard Berkman (played by Jeff Daniels with a low-key passive-aggressiveness that is like watching a trapped animal gnaw its leg off) is eking out a living as something like an adjunct instructor in undergraduate English courses, pathetically spraying his opinions about in every direction, flirting and making overtures to girls half his age, all the usual college professor stuff. But he's no lothario—he's hairy and brooding and oafish, and makes one wince frequently. He spends a good deal of time in conversation distinguishing major from minor works for the edification of anyone listening. His one passion appears to be making himself embarrassingly over-competitive playing tennis.

For all his many faults, Bernard nonetheless remains the hero of his oldest son, Walt, played memorably by Jesse Eisenberg, already on the project of claiming a position as best player of his generation (he hasn't managed it yet, but he's still not even 30 and he's getting there). Every silly thing that comes out of Walt's mouth, such as characterizing "The Metamorphosis" as "Kafkaesque," almost certainly has its origins with Bernard's pompous streams of pronouncements. It's painful and affecting to watch Walt continually fawn for his father's attention and approval.

The mother, Joan (played bravely by Laura Linney with virtually no makeup), has, meanwhile, recently begun to enjoy success as a fiction writer, publishing in "The New Yorker" and winning awards and career-making attention (for perspective, Noah Baumbach's parents are Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown.) Naturally, it's devastating for Bernard. In short order the marriage is declared over at a one-time-only "family meeting" ("What's that?" Walt asks when Bernard tells him to be there for it). The couple works out one of those insanely complicated schemes for shared custody of the two boys, which involves shuttling them back and forth (and the pet cat too, as the mood moves them) across Brooklyn nearly every day of the week with little thought for how it turns all their lives upside down.

One of the best parts of The Squid and the Whale is the inevitable acting out by the adolescents that follows. The younger boy, Frank (played by Owen Kline), intensifies his swearing, but that's only the beginning. Some of the details are a little shocking, but they always feel as if they were drawn from actual experiences, of Baumbach or people he knows. Walt, for his part, commits the pathetic stunt of lifting a Pink Floyd song to perform at his high school's talent show and claiming he wrote it himself. Later he dismissively tells a therapist he didn't think it would matter because he felt himself capable of writing it. Eisenberg always presents an interesting train wreck, somehow letting all his serial calculations in every situation flash across his face like a light show.

It's possible that The Squid and the Whale is one of those happy fortuitous accidents that happen all the time in the movies. Even though I remain skeptical of Baumbach it's not easy to deny the accomplishment here—I love this picture.

Top 10 of 2005
I see that many of the films I will be writing about particularly for the mid-decade period of the 2000s tend to qualify as "small," but that's not all I liked. I love Scorsese's sprawling documentary of Bob Dylan, Haneke's classy and eerie puzzler, and Spielberg's roaring remake of the science fiction classic (and his tilt at Israeli politics), for example, each one pretty big in its way. I also thought it was a good year for documentaries. I didn't get out to much of anything again for this year, so nearly all of my picks are the result of backfilling.
1. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
2. The Squid and the Whale
3. Cache
4. Grizzly Man
5. March of the Penguins
6. Brokeback Mountain
7. 51 Birch Street
8. War of the Worlds
9. Munich
10. The Descent

Didn't like so much: Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck; A History of Violence; Wedding Crashers; Why We Fight

Gaps: The Beat That My Heart Skipped, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Manderlay, Sin City, Syriana


  1. I liked both of Spielberg's '05 pictures too, War of the Worlds being especially underrated (so superior in its blockbuster craftsmanship to the following year - or was it this year's - King Kong, which garnered far more praise). And Munich I liked at the time, thinking it a mess but with an interesting subject; I saw it again last year (reviewing it side-by-side with Schindler's List) and was deeply impressed by its power, maturity, and craftsmanship. I know think it's one of his strongest pictures.

    As for Squid & the Whale, yeah I find this compulsively watchable. And I loathed Margot too. Although I'd probably call Kicking & Screaming his breakthrough, albeit one that wasn't really followed up on the way one might have thought it would be (at least not for a decade; I haven't seen the intervening films but then neither did many other people apparently).

    Glad you are a History of Violence skeptic as well. I found that film one of the most profoundly overrated of the entire decade.

  2. I still need to see Kicking & Screaming, and I am also interested now in looking up Greenberg because I thought Greta Gerwig was so great in Damsels in Distress. Which doesn't mean I don't have misgivings any more about Baumbach.

    Definitely agree with you about War of the Worlds over King Kong. I do like Peter Jackson, but on this one he really lost the thread in terms of understanding the source material, which he's usually good at it. Spielberg, by contrast, did exceptionally well honoring the feel of the original (movie, I mean, but I suppose book too).