The Squid and the Whale 2005
R | 1h 21min | Comedy, Drama | 16 December 2005 (USA)
In 1986, In Brooklyn, New York, the dysfunctional family of pseudo intellectuals composed by the university professor Bernard and the prominent writer Joan split. Bernard is a selfish, cheap and jealous decadent writer that rationalizes every attitude in his family and life and does not accept “philistines” – people that do not read books or watch movies, while the unfaithful Joan is growing as a writer and has no problems with “philistines”. Their sons, the teenager Walt and the boy Frank, feel the separation and take side: Walt stays with Bernard, and Frank with Joan, and both are affected with abnormal behaviors. Frank drinks booze and smears with sperm the books in the library and a locker in the dress room of his school. The messed-up and insecure Walt uses Roger Water’s song “Hey You” in a festival as if it was of his own, and breaks up with his girlfriend Sophie. Meanwhile Joan has an affair with Frank’s tennis teacher Ivan and Bernard with his student Lili.
Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)
Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and language
Filmmaker Noah Baumbach is back in fine form since his debut with the excellent “Kicking and Screaming” (a personal fave of mine; a “Diner” for the ’90s) in this semi-autobiographical account of his family’s dealing with his parent’s divorce with bittersweet frankness and a heaping of witty humor.
The family Berkman of Park Slope, Brooklyn circa the early 1980s, consists of author/teacher Bernard (Daniels in a career high performance that deserves an Oscar nod), literary pursuant mother Joan (Linney sublimely good) and sons Walt and Frank (Eisenberg and Kline, the latter the progeny of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates making a Culkinian debut with surprising chops) aka Chicken and Pickle (their mom’s nicknames). The quartet is harmonious in literary pursuits and drastic life changes when the parents agree on separating sending the boys (and ultimately themselves) into an emotional tailspin.
Bernard, a very sardonic critical yet loving man, is taking it very internally despite his sarcastic remarks about everything to his sons as a sounding board in his attempt to keep his boys together by a joint custody agreement with Joan by taking a fixer-upper brownstone across the park while he deals with the likelihood that his new book will never be published.
Joan’s affairs are discovered shockingly by the boys – Walt the more avuncularly bitter lashing out and blaming her for not giving the marriage a chance reasoning that dad’s lack of success has made her seek another shot a life of empty sex yet promise in her undiscovered writing talents (much to the resentment of Bernard); meanwhile budding tennis pro wannabe Frank, the youngest, begins to experiment with alcohol and masturbation.
Added to the mix is Lili (Paquin), a female writing student of Bernard’s, who has a hidden agenda when Bernard invites her to share his new home as a roommate while the boys visit every other day with mixed results. Walt is attempting to begin a sexual awakening as well with his first girlfriend but is getting all the wrong comic advice from Bernard who is clueless with the opposite sex as he is also trying to have sex with Lili while burning over Joan who has hooked up with Frank’s tennis instructor Ivan (a doofy Baldwin whose every other utterance is “Brother”).
Achingly funny, sharply witty and skewering with some pricelessly amusing moments including the running gag of Bernard driving his kids around the neighborhood (“my space is missing!” an apt metaphor for his listless situation) and subtle touches (Bernard reading Saul Bellow’s THE VICTIM and the new home decorated with posters of films like PSYCHO and THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE and using the instrumental theme of Tangerine Dream’s score to “Risky Business” during Frank’s sexual awakenings!) ) bring a smile if not a burst of laughter in the unease of a family’s reluctant transition that will scar them forever.
Baumbach is clearly making a heartfelt valentine to his own upbringing when his parents eventually divorced during his trying teens and the affects that have rubbed off are bittersweet and universally humorous. He has a keen touch with his actors – especially Daniels, the centerpiece character, who is brilliantly funny, touching and head-shaking misanthropic at the absurdity of his situation (at one point he says glibly with a touch of melancholy, “that’s my home which I used to live in…as you may know”, to his son during one of their jaunts back and forth) that has echoes of his first fine role as Flap, the philandering English professor husband of the doomed Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment”, suggesting a bookend to what Flap may have become ultimately (and I’m damned if I’m not right at one point Walt is looking at his father’s novel’s backflap and the photo suggests a still from that film!). Bernard genuinely cares for his family but does things in such an ass-backward (and frugal) way that it is borderline heartbreaking especially his confounded loss of his status (both professionally and familially) that at one point I welled up with tears as he caressed a shelve of books while dropping Frank off with his mom. Daniels has always been one of my all-time faves and a severely underrated (and underestimated actor) it’s be criminal if he didn’t get an Academy Award nomination.
There are some very funny moments throughout with the brothers particularly Frank’s stream of profanities in frustration at the tennis lessons (no doubt from his competitive father in several sequences) and Walt’s stone-cold declaration that the musical piece he will be performing, Pink Floyd’s “Hey You”, was written by him as an original work!
Baumbach has crafted some fine work over the years (the aforementioned masterpiece of “Kicking & Screaming” about recent college grad buds deliberately not accepting their new status in the ‘real world’ by refusing to adapt and his recent collaboration with executive producer and fellow auteur Wes Anderson on last year’s equally sublimely funny/sad “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”) and his latest, a blend of Salinger and Updike suggests a novella come to life and one of the year’s finest comedic dramas.
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Owen Kline, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney