Home Video Hovel: The Squid and the Whale, by Tyler Smith
How do we react when life kicks the chair out from under us? A loved one passes away, we lose our job, we get sick; there are dozens of scenarios that would change the dynamic of our lives were they to happen to us. Examining our reactions to unexpected suffering is a staple of all different forms of art. What many books, plays, songs, and films often depict is a certain nobility in suffering; a person learning to find their inner strength and persevere in the face of adversity. This is all well and good, but not every story can end like that. Sometimes the specific details of our loss, or our own frailty, prevent us from handling things in a healthy way, and we can become virtually intolerable to deal with. This is the stuff of good drama, too, as we see from Noah Baumbach’s domestic masterpiece The Squid and the Whale.
The film is about a family of intellectuals being torn apart by a bitter divorce. Each member of the family deals with the circumstances in their own way. Father Bernard (Jeff Daniels), already a self-absorbed snob, becomes resentful and biting. Mother Joan (Laura Linney) gets romantically involved with her tennis instructor. Youngest son Frank (Owen Kline) acts out irrationally, drinking beer and publicly masturbating.
But it is in the oldest son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), that we get a real sense of the tragedy of this divorce (and maybe of divorce, in general). Walt is a teenager, just entering the stage in which he is drawing away from his mother and trying to emulate – or maybe impress – his father. He is already feeling pulled apart emotionally, but Bernard and Joan’s divorce makes it physical. As such, Walt has conflicting loyalties to both parents, but, rather than come to terms with this, he opts instead to look after himself. This is a bold writing choice for Baumbach, having our ostensible lead, stuck in an inherently sympathetic situation, become less and less likable as the film goes on. We begin to wonder if, even at such a young age, it is too late for Walt to turn himself around and become a good person, or if his already-developing narcissism has now become ingrained by the circumstances around his parents’ divorce. The film’s ending gives us a bit of hope, but only a bit.
The Squid and the Whale is a deeply personal film for Noah Baumbach, who is himself a child of divorce. According to the special features on the new Criterion release of the film, Baumbach began to write the film as a sort of revenge against his parents. However, the film shows that, while Baumbach’s vision can certainly be considered clear-eyed, he is also committed to crafting an effective comedy-drama that gives each character his or her day in court. These people are not irredeemable, much as they might seem to be from one scene to the next. What started as revenge soon becomes an understanding
Baumbach’s script is terribly funny, while remaining undeniably heartbreaking. His stellar cast only elevates the material further, with each actor committing fully to his or her character, no matter how ugly they might get. Specific mention should be made of both Eisenberg and Daniels, as they are the two that are required to be the biggest bastards of the film. Jesse Eisenberg, whom I first became aware of as the naive innocent of Roger Dodger, effectively turns his motor-mouthed charm into something acidic and deeply insecure (traits that he would go on to use in films like The Social Network and Adventureland). And Jeff Daniels, so often previously cast as a harmless, plainspoken type, creates a character so pleased with the sound of his own voice that he often seems mystified that others might not be, or indeed that they might have voices of their own.
In the end, The Squid and the Whale is a finely-tuned character study that takes the specifics of this family’s situation and uses them to talk about larger things; not merely marriage and divorce, but human selfishness, and the neuroticism and fear that can lead to it. It is a film about the dark side of domesticity, which deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Woman Under the Influence. Noah Baumbach has created an unforgettable film about horrifyingly human people.