Criterion Prediction #20: The Squid and the Whale, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Squid and the Whale
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, William Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Anna Paquin and David Benger
Director: Noah Baumbach
Synopsis: Author turned teacher Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and his brainy Brooklyn-based family unravel in the wake of a divorce during the 1980’s. We see that this familial breakdown is most detrimental to their two sons, who also have the daunting task of navigating the pitfalls of growing up. Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) who at the age of sixteen gravitates to his intellectual father, and Owen, 12 feels more comfortable with his mother (Laura Linney) and her new boyfriend and Ivan (Billy Baldwin) who was also their tennis instructor.
The Berkman family are at odds with one another and the world around them; they seem to find solace in exorcising their contention through games of tennis and ping-pong.
Critique: Noah Baumbach is a crafty writer and an economical director; his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale is brimming with his unique wry humor and droll observations. Like most of his films there’s an excellent cast turning out some top-shelf performances; Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and a young Owen Kline are great. While he eschews intellectualism, or better yet the transparency of those who declare themselves as such, the cleverness isn’t enough to shake some of the smugness that lies at the heart of this film. Some effective jabs at the social hierarchy are fun; the youngest son Owen identifying himself and his mother’s new boyfriend Ivan as a philistine is funny. While the lax narrative approach and unembellished technical layout work for the material, the material fails to elicit any substantial emotional investment. It’s not that there’s an inherent need for a movie to have likable characters, but it helps when said characters do something of interest. They adopt each other’s destructive emotional characteristics, which is less compelling and more of an exhibition or moral high grading. There are some intelligent observations, and the result comes from a place that’s genuine and close to the directors own experiences, giving The Squid and the Whale a sense of sincerity that is understandably admired by many. Noah Baumbach is without a doubt a strong writer and director and The Squid and the Whale is a very well made film that I am not in any hurry to revisit.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It’s no mystery how or why Baumbach has found a home in the Criterion collection, seeing as he’s associated with other independent, new wave, comedic directors such as Wes Anderson, Todd Solondz, Richard Linklater and Whit Stillman, who are all featured in the collection. Baumbach is a well-known indie darling whose Kicking and Screaming and Frances Ha are marketable Criterion titles. The addition of The Squid and the Whale would be a surefire success as it’s one of the Baumbach’s more popular films. Plus, it would expand the level of American independents which is always a good thing. Bonus features would be interesting to see, cast and crew interviews are always fascinating, especially the recent momentum of Daniels, Linney, and Eisenberg since 2005. While I adore many films in The Criterion Collection, it doesn’t mean I love every film in their catalog. And in the interest of being objective, not every prediction is going to be a beloved title. Having said that, I do enjoy Noah Baumbach’s work but I won’t be in a rush to buy an updated Blu-Ray of The Squid and the Whale if and when it’s released. I’ll just cross my fingers for an upcoming announcement of Mistress America instead.