RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 17: Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid And The Whale” (2005)


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The Players…

Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Klein, with Stephen Baldwin.


The Story…

This is a story with an insightful look at the crumbling marriage between a self-centered novelist (whose career is on the wane) and his up-and-coming writer wife. In the meantime, the warring couple’s two sons get caught in the crossfire, which is where, as always, things get complicated.


The Rant…

Here’s a new one for you. A film that did quite well at the box office (its production budget of a mere $1.5 million yielded over $7 million domestic total gross), received rave reviews, sported an excellent cast…and no one has ever heard of it.

Ooooo. Chills, right?

What is it about indie films that get people’s hackles up? A great deal of the public’s perceptions is that indie films can be artsy-fartsy, pretentious, twee vanity projects aimed a very narrow audience of either highbrow snobs or annoying hipsters that disdain anything considered “mainstream.” Which is rather appropriate considering these are the types of characters that inhabit the world of The Squid And The Whale.

The above claim is not without merit. A great many of indie films earn those epithets. But I don’t think Squid is one of them. I don’t think so. Although this is indeed an indie film, it isn’t in any immediate danger of being considered darling.

This movie is decidedly a character study, and both Daniels and Linney are two of my fave character actors. They tend to pop up in films that often place them in roles against type, whatever that may be. These types happen to be a couple who are so unhealthy for one other you cannot possibly pick a side. Unlike their kids.

Once upon a time in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-80’s…


Bernard Berkman (Daniels) is an effete, arrogant snob. He is also a writer of some repute, or at least he used to be a lifetime ago. He now whiles away his days with teaching, giving book readings to somnolent college kids and dispensing culturally pithy dribble to anyone within earshot. And collecting ego-deflating rejection letters for his more recent submissions. His wife, Joan (Linney) is a shrinking violet of a woman, relegating her days to playing the mom role, being passive aggressive to her callow husband and making an ever increasing new life as a promising writer. The relationship has been going south for over a decade, the clash of personalities once so energizing has degraded into all out head banging. Joan can’t stand her husband’s insecurities and aloofness, and Bernard is blinded by jealousy of what may or may not have been Joan’s dalliances with other men. After one particularly heated argument about the aforementioned issues, Joan and Bernard decide to divorce, very much not amicably. Separate lives, separate homes, even sharing the family cat, before God.

By the way, they have two teenaged sons.

To say that lines have been drawn is a gross understatement. The elder son, Walt (Eisenberg), is a carbon copy of his pompous dad, lapping up whatever terse, groundless tenets he has on man, God and Proust. It’s hard to tell if passively hot-headed Walt is truly mirroring his father, or just being a sycophant. Either way, it’s a mutual relationship, and naturally Walt claims disdain for his alleged unfaithful, weak-willed mother, despite whatever pretentions Bernard may or may not have instilled in him.

Younger and at first glance innocent son Frank (Klein) is reclusive—withdrawn and confused by all the new status quo of separation. He chooses to side with his mother, who is far less judgmental than his domineering dad (who seems to have more time for Walt anyway). To deal with his alienation, Frank takes up activities of a dubious nature—to say the least—either to express his pent-up frustrations or as a means of drawing attention. Either way, the whole divorce has shattered something loose in Frank’s pubescent mind.

What with all the roadrunning, the kids being pumped for info as to what the other parent is doing, Bernard’s failing career, Joan’s budding one, Frank screaming into puberty and Walt trying to act like what his father would deem mature, it’s only a matter of time before something gives…


Sigh.

There are some movies you can dislike, but not exactly hate. Something tells me that this is often a side-effect of a lot of indie films, especially comedy-dramas like Squid. They get wrapped up in their needs to be left of center in their execution that sometimes it just leaves a bad taste. I’m really diffident about Squid. I mean, it was a fine film. There was a lot more to love than hate. But still, there were these conventions in place that, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, seemed trite and frankly frustrating. Then again, some were plain as day.

The good first, and there is much of it. Daniel steals the show as Bernard, so full of himself, all his intellect just a suit of emotional armor that over the years has developed quite a few chinks. His pontificating on…well, everything is both hilarious and enervating. I think we’ve all known someone like Bernard in our lives (I know I have; it’s me). The kids are amazing actors too. Walt is trying so hard to imitate/please his father he comes across as subtly confused for the first two acts of the film. You don’t know if his whole personality is wrapped up in emulating his father or just placating his ego. And Frank is so oddly steely yet innocent you can’t really pity his young person for how he handles (or doesn’t handle) his family’s breakup. When you can’t pity a wide-eyed, adorable moppet, that’s good acting.

The performances are all cringe worthy, which makes them all the more relatable. This is a good thing. Really, I was wincing with almost every scene of the picture, tantalizingly aware of every nuance and pointed barb. Everything Bernard says made my eyes roll…or cringe. With Bernard, rarely has rationalizing sound so…so reasonable. And yet so cutting you want to smack him in the puss with a dead salmon.

A lot of the acting is done here with the eyes. Every member of the Berkman clan has a signature gaze that conveys their personalities very well. Bernard is remote, Joan is maudlin, Walt is indignant and Frank is…intoxicated. It’s like the four seasons, and this dynamic makes for an engaging series of purchases to hang on to. Walt’s pleading look especially. It’s a defiant front to anything that might put his father in a displeasing light, even if he sees it himself. His self-righteous and fragile fury is frustratingly simple to taste, and he justifies his attitude as a cracked mirrior image of Bernard. Walt takes several social liberties with the cloak of mock maturity. To put it plainly, the Berkman’s are not really Floyd fans.

And now the rougher stuff, and there is much of it. There is next to no chemistry at all between Bernard and Joan. Maybe this makes for an ideal portrait of divorce, but it’s overly antagonistic for cinema. You don’t really root for these two to get back together, but a part of you kind of wishes it. At least that’s the Hollywood conceit. This dynamic may or may not be considered brilliant by most audiences, but I found it a tad confusing. The film, to me, was more about the kids.

Speaking of Joan, I expected Linney to play more of a role here in Squid. Most of the time she seemed relegated to the side in favor of Daniels’ screen time. Again, maybe this was another metaphor; Bernard’s ego so inflated it pushed Joan out of the picture, figuratively and literally. If this were the case, a very clever metaphor. If not, maybe Daniels was counting lines. At any rate, Linney seemed wobbly enough to pitch over at any given moment. I guess she was the allegorical squid here.

The tennis/ping-pong as metaphor for the kids interacting with their quarreling parents is a not so subtle message. In fact it’s rather on the nose, and possibly insulting to less lenient filmgoers. This beat was hit upon time and time again, until the driving force was dried up, as well as a bunch of other bits here and there that were delivered a tad predictably. Also, on another hand (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) quite a few “ewww” moments in this movie I just didn’t expect. I’m not sure if there were done for graphic effect or just to set the audience off-kilter.

I don’t know if all the carps I’ve listed here either amount to great cinema storytelling or a ball of confusion. Maybe that’s what Baumbach was trying to convey, and how fragile relationships can be. Or maybe it’s another indie mindf*ck that one comes to expect with these kinds of films. On the whole, Squid was supremely acted at its core (which matters most in a character study), surrounded by a sticky coating of indie trappings not easily palatable by hipster or mainstream audiences alike.

Damned hipsters. Those cold, evil hipsters…


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? I recommend this film without truly liking it. Rent it, but you only need to watch it once.


Stray Observations…

  • Oh, Lord. Wine coolers…
  • Is all the camera work here done with handhelds? I think they are. Tell me if I might have missed any scenes that were steadycam.
  • “Since when do you drink beer?” “Since recently.”
  • The soundtrack here is wonderful. Wistful, solemn and desperate. Cut by Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 and Luna fame, two pet favorite bands of mine. Check out some of their albums; you might like them.
  • The movie was only an hour and fifteen minutes, but seemed like longer. Not that it dragged, but instead a lot of characterization was crammed in there real good. Maybe the best aspect of the film.
  • “Don’t be difficult.”
  • Oh, Lord. Mr. Mister…

Next Installment…

Will Smith declares I Am Legend against a horde of post-apocalyptic vampires. What could go wrong?


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