Worth A Look: 38.46%
Pretty Bad: 1.54%
Total Crap: 6.15%
7 reviews, 23 user ratings
|Squid and the Whale, The
Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” is a compulsively watchable as it is disturbing. The writer-director presents an unflinching depiction of a marriage collapsing into chaos and acrimony. The film’s honest assessment of divorce’s toll on children is certainly worth the price of admission, but Baumbach manages to make the situation compelling and darkly hilarious.Baumbach grabs the viewer from the opening and never lets go. As the Berkman family plays a seemingly innocent game of tennis, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) tells his older son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, “Roger Dodger“) how to hit the ball so that his mother Joan (Laura Linney) can’t return it. If a father is this cutthroat during a simple family tennis match, you get a sense that his priorities are sadly misplaced.
"Would be unbearable if it weren’t so damn funny."
To be fair, fate isn’t doing him any favors. His career as a college professor and novelist has stalled, and he feels more than a little resentment over how his wife’s short stories are getting published in major magazines. If that weren’t enough of a blow to his inflated pride (he refers to Kafka as “one of my predecessors“), he catches Joan cheating on him. The two abruptly call it quits.
The aftermath isn’t pretty. Bernard hooks up with one of his students (Anna Paquin), and Joan takes up a series of brief relationships, including one with her sons’ tennis teacher (a disarmingly amiable William Baldwin).
The worst damage from the breakup, though, occurs with Walt and his younger brother Frank (Owen Kline, the real life son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates). With their parents too absorbed in their own feud, their sons become a pair of unguided missles. Frank becomes a foul mouthed lad with a short temper and a habit of smearing bodily discharges in public places.
On the surface, Walt seems to take the situation better but gradually becomes a creepy imitation of his old man. He spouts out glibly shallow observations about literature and other subjects (he describes The Metamorphosis as “Kafkaesque”). He also tries to pass off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own work. Apparently, Bernard and many of the other adults in his circle are so insular that they’ve never heard The Wall.
As the disintegrating family’s behavior becomes more contemptible, the film continues to be engaging because Daniels and company manage to keep the Berkmans from becoming caricatures. Daniels’ Bernard becomes mesmerizing because, despite the intelligence it took him to get where his is, he never grasps how his actions have harmed himself and everyone else around him. Daniels masterfully plays the role without a hint of self consciousness.
When Bernard takes an eerie, vicarious fascination with Walt’s budding relationship with a friendly classmate named Sophie (Haley Feiffer), a viewer can almost forgive the wretched advice he gives the lad because Daniels never betrays the character’s horrifying cluelessness.
Daniels almost makes him sympathetic because you get a sense that Bernard will never get over himself long enough to realize what’s actually happening. Daniels may not do any physical ticks or odd accents in this role, but his fearless portrayal of Walt’s numerous foibles is certainly award worthy. He deserves additional credit for being able to say appallingly smug pronouncements (like telling Frank that his teacher is not a good role model because he’s not a fellow literature snob) with a straight face. As a result, lots of nervous laughter ensues.
As he demonstrated in “Roger Dodger,” young Eisenberg can easily hold his own against seasoned professionals giving peak performances. He projects an innocence that makes Walt’s frequent transgressions almost tolerable. Unlike Bernard, Walt still has a chance to straighten up. This desperate hope gives “The Squid and the Whale” a rare poignancy
The rest of the performers are rock solid. Baumbach slyly casts Paquin, who played Daniels’ daughter in “Fly Away Home,” as his much younger paramour. This makes their on-screen relationship here seem even more disgusting.
Baumbach does nothing to stop or soften the emotional train wreck that occurs throughout “The Squid and the Whale.” Bernard and Walt’s absurdly fatuous pronouncements about art and life are often side-splitting, but these gaffes never detract from the anger and frustration that drive them to ruin.
The title refers to an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, which shows the two creatures in a mortal struggle not too dissimilar to the one between Walt’s parents. The film’s moniker may turn off viewers who are unfamiliar with its origin, but its observations on divorce are relevant enough to make catching the film worthwhile.As a critic, it’s often difficult to analyze something without sounding as smugly off-putting as Bernard can be. Baumbach deserves a lot of credit for ably demonstrating that there are far worse things to be than a Philistine.
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originally posted: 01/01/06 15:10:43
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