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From the DVD Shelf: The Squid and the Whale (2005)

After watching Noah Baumbach’s film Greenberg last month (click here for my review), I thought it’d be fun to re-watch the first film of his that I ever saw: 2005’s The Squid and the Whale.

I’m not sure what prompted me to rent this film 4-5 years ago.  Possibly the great, intriguing title, or maybe the DVD’s well-designed cover art.  Whatever it was, I remember really being impressed with the power of this funny, sad story.  I was excited to see it again last week!

The Squid and the Whale is set in Brooklyn in the 1980’s.  Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline play Walt and Frank Berkman, two boys whose parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, are going through a divorce.  It’s a coming-of-age story, as the two boys struggle to deal with the dissolution of their once-stable family-unit.  Needless to say, the process is difficult on them both, though the two boys react in entirely different ways.

I can imagine that description of the film’s being about a painful divorce makes it sound like it would be a real slog to get through, but the story of the film (which Mr. Baumbach both wrote and directed) is told with a very light tough.  There are some scenes that are difficult and hard to watch, no mistake, but for the most part the film is rather a good deal of fun.  Throughout the story, Mr. Baumbach maintains a great deal of affection for all of the characters (even when they behave badly), and he’s able to mine a great deal of humor from their quirks and antics.  At certain moments, the film is very funny.

Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as Walt Berkman.  This is a fully-formed performance, and one can easily see why he went on to such high-profile roles in the past few years (in films like Zombieland and The Social Network).  Equally impressive is Owen Kline as his younger brother, Frank.  According to imdb, Owen has only appeared in one short film in the years since The Squid and the Whale, and that’s too bad because he’s really terrific in this film, honest and natural.

But in my mind it’s Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney who make the strongest impact.  Both of those incredibly talented actors have put in impressive performances in a number of great films, but it’s their roles here that always stick out in my mind as among their most memorable.  Jeff Daniels’ character, Bernard, is quite a prick — arrogant about his literary knowledge and jealous and threatened when his wife gets her first taste of success.  But his struggles are so wonderfully human that I never turned on him.  Bernard’s jealousy of his wife is fueled by his own knowledge that he might never be able to recapture the success that he received after the publication of his first novel.  It’s easy to empathize with the struggles of a character wanting to achieve more than he has, all the while being haunted by the knowledge that maybe he never will.  Hopefully most of us respond to life’s disappointments with a little more grace than Bernard does, but still, I found that I could never quite condemn him for his behavior.

Same goes for Laura Linney as Joan.  She’s an unfortunate combination of infantilazing towards her two sons (insisting on calling Frank by the childish nickname “Pickle”) while she also obliviously shares with them far more adult information than these two young boys ever need to know.  While one can’t balme her from wanting out of her unhappy marriage with Bernard, it’s hard not to see her immediately starting up a relationship with her sons’ young tennis coach (William Baldwin) as a little childish.

But none of these characters are evil.  None are entirely pure and heroic, and none are dastardly villains.  It’s so delightful to see such well-written, fully fleshed-out characters in an ensemble like this (brought to life so indellibly by such wonderful actors).  Even more than that, as I’ve already noted several times in this review, it’s such a delight to see this serious story — that is basically about the break-up of a family — told with such wit, and with such a warm glow.  It’s unclear to me just how autobiographical this film is, but it seems a certainty to me that Mr. Baumbach has incorporated some of his pleasant, nostalgic feelings for his childhood into the tale, along with the heartbreak that every child feels when they discover that their parents are not the infallible, all-knowing creatures we once assumed them to be.

There are a few moments when the film’s narrative strays into some outlandish territory, such as the depiction of young Frank’s acting out by masturbating in the school’s library.  To generalize enormously, I’ve noticed that many “indie” films tend to include material designed to shock the audience with its frankness, perhaps as a way of differentiating themselves from the more generic big-budget studio fare.  I sometimes find that to be off-putting, and those scenes with Frank come perilously close to that for me.  The scenes are awkward to watch, yes, but that’s not really what bothers me.  It’s that it seems like an outlandish plot twist for a film that, to that point, had felt entirely “real” and grounded — as if this could be a story of any family.  Perhaps librarians would disagree, but it seems to me that young boys wiping semen on library books is not that common an occurrence.

But this is a minor complaint, and one could argue — as I’m sure Mr. Baumbach would — that those sorts of painfully awkward moments are necessary to give the film its emotional weight.  Either way, it’s just one small off-note for me, and doesn’t in any way impact my enjoyment of this terrifically well-crafted film.

Mr. Baumbach is one of the most unique, vibrant voices working in film today.  If you haven’t yet seen The Squid and the Whale, I encourage you to check it out!

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