The Squid And The Whale
Arriving alongside its more popular cousin The Royal Tenenbaums as part of the Criterion Collection, The Squid And The Whale, for many, will be something of an acquired taste. But even if at first it does not appeal to the pallet it is a film that is so keenly observed it is hard not to take something from it.
A semi-autobiographical account of writer director Noah Baumbach’s formative years the film tells the story of a family, far less quirky than the Tenenbaums, in decline. Father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a frustrated author and professor who revels in condescending everyone as a way of masking his own obvious character flaws. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) is an aspiring writer about to get her first short story published in a magazine.
Caught in the maelstrom of their separation are their two children. Eldest Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) has inherited his father’s superiority complex. Patronising and arrogant he seeks to impress his father by passing off Pink Floyd songs as his own. Youngest son Frank (Owen Kline) on the other hand is more from his mother’s school of thought, delicate, and a little insecure. But it is he that is more affected by the upheaval in his family’s life.
As you would expect from Baumbach The Squid And The Whale is no Kramer Vs. Kramer. Instead this is a delicate drama about how parents impact their children. A film about children that reminds you of that time in your life when you began to see your parents as fallible rather than perfect. It will undoubtedly speak loudest to those who have experienced divorce first hand but there is something for everyone here.
Baumbach makes the drama the lynchpin upon which to hang his dry sense of humour. The story is clearly one close to his heart but part of dealing with that, rather than crying about it, is to laugh at the ludicrous ways in which parents regress when it comes to breaking up a family. The moment at which Joan and Bernard reveal the news of their separation to their children could easily have been heartbreaking and gradually leads to that until the children ask where the cat is going to live? Joan, a look of horror on her face, responds with “shi*t, we forgot about the cat”. It is a perfectly timed moment, a silver lining of humour in an otherwise cloudy world.
The Squid And The Whale is a visual treat, Baumback, with the assistance of cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman – a regular collaborator of Squid producer Wes Anderson – perfectly captures the ‘80s aesthetic. The ever so slightly drab clothes, everything tinged with just a hint of grey but comforting warmth throughout. Rather than bombard us with a soundtrack from the era, the songs are there but always in the background rather than a focal point, Baumbach hones certain trends and fashions of the time that keep you subtly reminded of the time period we’re briefly inhabiting.
Linney is on wonderful warm form as Joan. She is easily the more sympathetic of the parents. Daniels is a comical, often unpleasant, blow-hard but it’s his comedy timing that sells the film’s unique sensibility. Eisenberg does his now trademark glibness, the character slowly coming to realise his father is not quite the all knowing intellect he once thought of. His journey is the most rounded and as such towards the end Eisenberg’s performance becomes key, and, more importantly, hugely relatable. All the while Kline feels like Baumbach’s avatar of the piece, the tragic little boy in the corner figuring things out long before his older brother and is endlessly more sympathetic as a result.
Quintessential Baumbach but thanks to the honesty also his most accessible, The Squid And The Whale is a hauntingly funny slice of life.