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The Squid and the Whale Review

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by Chris McEneany Apr 1, 2006

    The Squid and the Whale Review
    “Mum and me versus you and Dad.”

    Noah (Kicking And Screaming) Baumbach's semi-autobiographical tale of an intellectual Brooklyn family's painful/comical dissolution when the two parents realise that their marriage is over, was a darling of the indie-circuit last year in the States, scooping quite a few awards and a great many accolades from the critics. The R1 DVD release coincides with the film's theatrical debut on this side of the pond, where the film seems set to garner similar praise. It is indeed a small film, though its lack of budget is no reflection upon the quality of its writing and direction from Baumbach, nor upon the intimacy and wonderful idiosyncrasies that its cast reveal throughout this snapshot tour of divorce and its bitter repercussions. Though far from being a TV Movie Of The Week weepie or even a critical expose of the effects that marital break-up can have on the children, The Squid And The Whale focuses on the struggle that grownups, themselves, have when they realise that their own pride has led them far astray from the emotional path that they should have been following. That the screenplay ceaselessly waggles the finger of ridicule at such intellectual high-brows as a failing novelist (Jeff Daniels as Bernard - Dad), who is so far up his own backside that he can only retort to life's pitfalls in haphazard literary quotation, and at aspiring writer Mum (Laura Linney as Jean), who finds her inspiration from a long line of affairs, is the seedbed from which Baumbach's own ridiculously articulate sparring-dialogue springs. That the whole scenario of the quasi-custody battle for the two sons, seventeen year old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and twelve year old Frank (Owen Kline) is often just a set of hilarious character-observations is the ace up the film's sleeve. It could have been a tear-jerker - and, if so, it would have been trite and boring. Instead, The Squid And The Whale walks a very unconventional tightrope between cerebral farce and emotional slapstick as the boys rebel against the divorce in their own unique and occasionally disturbing way.

    “How do you split evenly with seven days?”

    Tennis-loving Bernard is a suitcase-full of niggles and hang-ups - he just can't see that for himself. The shelves of the family home in the middle-class suburban enclave of Brooklyn's Park Slope, 1986, are stuffed with the type of writing he seeks to emulate. His own books reside behind dust and the self-created veneer of the high-regard that Bernard, himself, and Walt, who idolises him, bestow upon them. When the split occurs, and Walt discovers the infidelities of his mother, he naturally gravitates more towards Bernard in the ramshackle, threadbare house that he moves into across the park, the two eking out a bizarre Byron-tinted lifestyle that sees the father embellishing his former glories - in literature and in love - whilst fortifying his son's distrust and hostility towards his mother. That he can't cook, or see the damage he is doing, has no money and is a woefully hack wordsmith - who has essentially had his day - is nothing compared to the fierce competitive streak that sees him trying his utmost to thrash the younger son Frank at table-tennis, belittle school teachers with bogus egotistical rants and even philosophically woo Walt's potential girlfriends. He is an arrogant, obnoxious bore, a pompous namedropper who will stop at nothing to gain points in a feud that his own wounded narcissism has already lost. But Jeff Daniel's, behind that thick scholarly beard, plays him like the true buffoon he really is. It is a fantastic portrayal - matter-of-fact yet bitterly pointed, armed with cruel barbs, yet tragically wrapped up in his own inner turmoil. He is also incredibly funny. Daniels has that toneless college professor voice that can lull you to sleep - witness the reading he gives of one of his earlier works to a literary class for visual evidence of this - yet his comic delivery is actually aided by such deadpan qualities. When Frank informs him that Jean is now going out with their tennis coach, played by William Baldwin (who seems to finish every sentence with the word “brother”), as they drive away from a session on-court, Bernard can only drone in soft surprise, “Ivan ... back-there Ivan?” Yet he is also excellent at sudden expletive-filled outbursts at the most trivial of blunders - be it dropping the meal he has just prepared on the floor, or the many shots he misses when Frank beats him again at table-tennis. His laconic drawl is perfect for the cantankerous, old-school letch. Now that his own writing days are foundering of the shores of anonymity, he has turned to teaching such creativity to students - some of whom cannot fail to be drawn to his self-absorbed, frustrating and sometimes disparaging remarks. And Walt just wants to be his Dad so much that he has taken to parroting his idiotic opinions and quoting some of his inept literary referencing. However, plagiarising songs in an effort to win the school talent contest is a new one of his own creation.

    “We can get you some turtles ... I know you like amphibians.”

    “Dad, turtles are reptiles.”

    Laura Linney essays Jean with a smart complexity that contains enough troubled feelings and lost devotion to have you pity her starched years of putting up with Bernard, yet condemn her for rubbing his nose in it with all the evidence of her flings that she leaves around. Sadly, Bernard doesn't live so completely inside his own head that he doesn't notice such casual pot-shots. Thus, Jean is revealed to have a cruel streak of her own. Although a writer herself, she shares none of Bernard's domineering self-importance, choosing to live life as well as philosophise about it. But, even after the break-up, there appears to be a little flower of hope in need of some sunlight. There is a terrific scene when Bernard and Jean have an agreeable and heartfelt discussion at the front door that seems to suggest they still have a chance together - yet, cleverly, Baumbach's writing is realistic enough at this point to reveal that relationships, even when broken, have haphazard connections still fizzing away that may, inevitably, mean nothing to the bigger picture. Frank, of course, is the one that sort of sides with his mother - only his transformation is a little more overt. Awakening to his own sexuality - even as his brother is having an embarrassingly inept romance with Halley Feiffer's fellow student Sophie - he takes to masturbating in school and leaving his yield on the books in the library (a possible metaphorical snipe at writers, there?) and the lockers, and experimenting with alcohol. He also has some tremendous swearing tirades that his outwardly liberal-minded parents seem to condone (or, in Bernard's case, even encourage) that become moments of rebellion to cherish, in a perverse sort of way. As Frank, Own Kline almost steals the show with a performance that may have a vulnerable desperation, but is never traumatic or upsetting enough to shift the offbeat tone of the movie from one of wayward familial satire.

    “We were thinking of Short Circuit ...”

    “Blue Velvet's supposed to be ... interesting.”

    Jesse Eisenberg's Walt is revelation too, horribly self-aware and socially-handicapped by his aping of his dad's traits - that Kafkaesque moment is priceless, as is the squirm-inducing kiss that follows it. But he exhibits an honesty in the role that makes him immediately likeable, and a suitably quirky hero to root for amid all this chaos. Check out his crucial rendition of Pink Floyd's “Hey You” and the bizarre battle for custody of the cat. But the cryptic title of the film also belongs to him and it does, indeed, add a lilting dimension to the plot that proves uplifting and surreal. When you throw Anna Paquin's sexy (until she gets that nosebleed, that is) student Lili into the stormy and confused mix, the scene is set for some amusingly uncomfortable moments of self-discovery and poignant sentiment. Dialogue-heavy and entrenched in an earthy, almost book-bound feel, The Squid And The Whale has a lot, and yet very little, to say about the human condition and its predilection with ego and pride. It is wry, eloquent and intelligent, though unafraid to be daft one minute, and heartrending the next. Noah Baumbach's film may be some kind of absolution for himself and his own upbringing, but it feels surprisingly light and engaging. Moving along at a brisk and succinct 81 minutes, the film never outstays its welcome and seems to pack a lot in, despite not much really happening. A great character piece, then, with the cast firing on all cylinders. Different and very entertaining.

    ONE IMPORTANT NOTE - this Sony release appears have glitch that renders anything other than the menus virtually unplayable on the PC. I'm afraid that it is due to Sony's anti-copying encoding. I've heard many bad things about Sony discs in the last few months with regards to playback errors, but I can assure you that this disc played fine on the three stand-alone machines that I tried it on. Their release of Mirrormask a few weeks ago had a similar problem - although my copy worked fine on the PC and on my DVD players, I know two people who purchased their own copies to find that they wouldn't work on their machines at all.