Squid and the Whale, The (United States, 2005)
The foundation of any good family drama is interesting characters, and The Squid and the Whale is replete with them. Movies about divorce and dysfunctional families are so commonplace that it's difficult to avoid slipping into clichés yet, as a result of a sensitive and literate script coupled with uniformly strong performances, Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical feature navigates the minefield without incident. I won't argue that this is a great film, but it is a very good one, and it held my attention from beginning to end.
The year is 1986, and the place is Brooklyn, New York. The marriage between Professor Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and his wife, Joan (Laura Linney), is about to pass the point of no return. Bernard, a brilliant but self-obsessed man, is more interested in exploiting his wife's weaknesses than showing affection. Tired of being shackled to a man who loves himself and his books more than her, Joan has sought comfort outside of her marriage - on more than one occasion. When this comes to head and the couple decides to separate, it's the children - teenager Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother, Frank (Owen Kline) - who are the victims. The joint custody arrangement offers little for anyone. Bernard has to move into a dump of a house (the only place he can afford on his meager salary). Frank wants to stay with his mother and avoid his father. Walt, who idolizes Bernard, would rather skip visits to his mother. And the family cat gets shuttled back and forth with the children. Things become complicated when Lili (Anna Paquin), one of Bernard's students, moves into his house and catches Walt's eye, and when Joan takes up with Frank's tennis instructor, Ivan (William Baldwin).
Perhaps because aspects of the story reflect real-life events from writer/director Noah Baumbach's growing-up experiences, there's a sense of truth and believability in all that transpires during the course of The Squid and the Whale. This does not feel like a movie of the week. It is not replete with manipulation. Instead, we are confronted with credible characters facing a difficult (yet common) situation, and they react in ways we might expect. The characters in The Squid and the Whale are intelligent, flawed individuals, and Baumbach illustrates the gray areas of their personalities, rather than dwelling on blacks and whites. It's s refreshing experience to see a picture in which no one can justifiably be classified as "good" or "bad." And the story is open-ended. This is a slice of life. There's more of the pie to be consumed, but the movie only provides a piece of it. There is closure, but also a recognition that life will go on.
Jeff Daniels, an actor who is often relegated to inoffensive supporting roles, surprises with the power and intensity of his performance. His Bernard is an astounding egotist, with uncompromising views on nearly every subject, but there are moments when Daniels shows us glimpses into the hurt, confused soul of the man underneath the self-absorbed exterior. Laura Linney adds another amazing portrayal to her list of memorable characters. Although Joan does things that some might consider repugnant, Linney fashions her alter-ego into a sympathetic human being. As the children, Jesse Eisenberg (Roger Dodger) and Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), are without artifice. Strong support is provided by William Baldwin and Anna Paquin. (Paquin's Lili is interesting enough to warrant her own movie.)
By keeping the tone from becoming too grim - there's plenty of humor to be found during the course of the movie - Baumbach allows us to see both the absurdity and the tragedy of the situation. The kids react in predictable ways. One tries to cope by ignoring the situation as best he can. The other misbehaves in a manner guaranteed to earn him attention. The adults also react expectedly, lashing out at each other in playing the blame game. The title comes from an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where a whale and squid are shown locked in combat, each devouring the other. Such is the reality of Bernard and Joan's relationship. And, though the divorce severs their marriage, it does nothing to cut their ties or heal old wounds. The Squid and the Whale is about surviving the divorce, and finding a state of equilibrium in the new and uncertain reality of a fractured family. Though the setting of the film is 1986, its message is no less relevant today than it would have been 20 years ago.
Squid and the Whale, The (United States, 2005)
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, Halley, William Baldwin
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Britta Phillips, Dean Wareham
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate