The Squid and the Whale (2005)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

What do a tennis match, writing desks for “lefties,” A Tale of Two Cities, and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore have in common?

For writer/director Noah Baumbach, they’re just a few of many elements he uses in his new film The Squid and the Whale that playfully reflect the back-and-forth, the clash of personalities, and the opposing perspectives of burned-out novelist Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and miserable wife Joan (Laura Linney).

After the Berkmans’ two boys, Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline), absorb the impact of their parents’ divorce, they find themselves being jerked back and forth “across the net,” as one parent seeks out the other’s weaknesses in a bruising game of resentment, infidelity, ego, and joint custody.

Yes, the raves are accurate: Baumbach’s film is poignant, insightful, truthful, funny, and beautifully acted. It’s also one of the most painful big screen tales of divorce ever filmed. “I think you’re doing a foolish, foolish thing,” Walt rages. His mother later retorts, “It was nothing to do with you.” Exactly. This divorce is taking place because both husband and wife have been relentlessly selfish and dishonest, giving little thought to the consequences of their actions on their children.

Criticizing everything he sees, including his children, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a monstrous egomaniac. He’s s let the fame of his novels go to his head, even though that success is a thing of the past — he still considers himself an authority on everything. (He fired his agent for making a disparaging remark about the New York Knicks.) His pretentious swagger may charm the occasional writing student and his wide-eyed eldest son Walt, but it doesn’t fool Joan, Frank, or anyone else witnessing his buffoonish tantrums.

Remember Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent Vega who, while buying drugs from a dealer, bemoaned the immorality of the man who “keyed” his car? That’s the level of hypocrisy and moral contradiction we see in Bernard. He feverishly condemns cultural “Philistines,” even as he neglects, disdains, and verbally abuses his wife. He condescends to instruct his sons on worthwhile life goals, even as his fierce competitiveness and judgmentalism — in everything from literature to ping-pong — leaves them scrambling to earn his approval. During the joint custody debacle, he insists the boys show up on the days designated to him, but then he goes out to flirt with an adoring student named Lili(Anna Paquin), leaving poor Frank alone in the house to develop bad habits of his own.

Walt admires his father’s authoritative nature and emulates him. He’s a brash, dishonest, sneering cynic in-the-making, and he’s all too eager to use and abuse women just like Dad does.

Twelve-year-old Frank, on the other hand, is weary of his father’s punishing expectations, and he’s growing into a monster of a different order. Confused by the trials and changes of adolescence, traumatized by his parent’s sexual affairs, and mimicking their expletive-laced language, Frank plunges into reckless acts of protest, including binge drinking and a sick form of vandalism. Only an affable tennis instructor (William Baldwin) seems likely to provide an alternate example for these young men—and that is depressing indeed.

This dismaying story is told through Walt’s perspective, drawing us into a realistic tale set in 1970’s Brooklyn, reflecting the aftermath of the free-love ’60s. Deftly fusing both comedy and tragedy, the film joins The Ice Storm, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which Baumbach co-wrote with Wes Anderson) as one of the strongest recent features about the far-reaching consequences of adultery and divorce.

Jeff Daniels delivers his most accomplished performance in this film, one that should earn him more lead roles and the kind of credit he has long deserved. His comic timing makes Bernard’s foolishness funny at times, but ultimately devastating. Laura Linney, who starred in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, gives a much more complex, heartfelt, and convincing performance here as a mother whose needs are so neglected, whose desires so reckless and uncontrolled, that she ignores the needs of her children and plunges into dissatisfying affairs.

Jessie Eisenberg and Owen Kline are also utterly convincing. They bring Walt and Frank to life with such skill that it’s easy to believe they’re out there in the real world, lost souls still searching for counsel, guidance, and love. The saddest thing of all — there are so many young people just like them.

Andrew Coffin, film critic for World, expresses that he was turned off by the film. “Mr. Baumbach, viewers sense, is being brutally honest in Squid and must find the experience somehow cathartic. But justifying the time any of the rest of us would spend with such profoundly unsympathetic characters is a task far beyond this reviewer.”

Coffin is right insofar as the Berkmans’ behavior can be extremely unpleasant for viewers. Baumbach’s story is told with autobiographical passion and searing candor, whether or not he ever experienced joint custody himself. But there are notes of compassion in the midst of the grief he communicates through the tone of his storytelling.

Because it tells the truth about sin and consequences so candidly, The Squid and the Whale is not an easy film to recommend. It is the farthest thing from a “feel-good” movie. But it is powerfully well-made. Thus I would “justify the time” spent on this film like this: A work of art of this nature can help those who have had similar experiences see through the emotion and the damage to discern the roots of such evil, and hopefully choose a better path for our own relationships. It can provide a provocation to discussion with our neighbors, who perhaps have not considered the impact of infidelity and parental neglect. Further, it can also help those of us who have never experienced such dysfunction to find compassion for those caught in similar storms.

One scene sticks with me long after seeing it: A girl stands on a school platform and sings, a capella, Mr. Mister’s pop hit Kyrie Eleison. In the middle of this sad film Baumbach pauses for a child’s plaintive cry for God to have mercy. In the midst of so much debauchery, a moment like this is not a trivial matter. It’s the fleeting glimmer of hope in 90 minutes of darkness.

Thus, I would argue that The Squid and the Whale is one of the best films of 2005, offering a sad but essential vision of the wages of sin, just as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm one of the finest films of 1997. And the fact that Squid was made in 23 days on a budget of less than $2 million, well, that just goes to show that an independent “David” can surpass excessive Hollywood “Goliaths” if he comes armed with talent, passion, and a meaningful story.

Writer, director – Noah Baumbach
Director of photography – Robert Yeoman
Editor – Tim Streeto
Music – Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips
Production designer – Anne Ross
Producers – Wes Anderson, Peter Newman, Charles Corwin and Clara Markowicz
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
88 minutes. Rated R.
STARRING: Jeff Daniels (Bernard Berkman), Laura Linney (Joan Berkman), Jesse Eisenberg (Walt Berkman), Owen Kline (Frank Berkman), Anna Paquin (Lili), Billy Baldwin (Ivan) and Halley Feiffer (Sophie).

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  1. prolificdesign Says:

    Ecclesiastes 38:25 really touched me today thank you for reminding me that wisdom is poured out through us only when we take time… and rest in Jesus.
    I needed to hear these words today
    Thanks!
    p.s. Phil 1:20-21

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