Squid and the Whale, The
Release date: October 5, 2005
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay by: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin
There’s just something about Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale that makes you want to punch every character you meet in the mouth. However bad that sounds, it’s actually exactly what makes it such an amusing film.
Baumbach hones in on the messy way these people deal with life by focusing on the Berkman family of four. Bernard (Daniels) and Joan (Linney) are both writers, but the man of the house finds himself at the end of his wits when his wife begins to get more recognition than he does. They decide to separate, leaving their children Walt (Eisenberg) and Frank (Kline) to deal with the repercussions.
As far as the plot setup goes, it’s nothing special, but Baumbach’s real talent lies in the writing of his characters and their dialogue. There’s a moment about ten minutes into the movie, just after Bernard reveal to his children that he’s moving away due to their separation, that Owen Kline delivers the first trigger for laugh out loud comedy in what seemed to be a rather dramatic film. This is a child that seems about to burst into tears because of his parents divorce and he simply says, “Across the park. Is that even Brooklyn?” For this kid to take something that trivial and make a huge deal out of it shows a sort of disdain for privilege from Baumbach to the point where it’s all one big joke.
That’s where a character like Bernard, played like a true elitist asshole through and through by Jeff Daniels, is so important to the story. While Laura Linney’s character is just as influential to many of the irrational decisions that her children make, Daniels’ overbearing presence can be felt throughout. His pompous opinions on everything, that no one but one of his son’s truly wants to hear, are a plague on his family. With each critique of a literary classic, he further drives a wedge between them all, and his older son takes it all to heart to the point where he practically loses his own identity. Walt repeats his father’s quotes on novels, assumes that he could create something that has already been created, and even falls for the same woman his father has fallen for. It’s a desperate cry for help that no one can listen to, even when they all hear him play Pink Floyd’s Hey You at a talent show.
Owen Kline, who I dare say is the real stand-out of the cast even against Daniels’ great performance, lets his character have a more balanced blend of his mother and father’s qualities. His indiscretions are far more overt and unsettling than his brother’s, and yet it’s exactly what makes him the more amusing of the two. Every time Frank refers to himself as a philistine after his father explains that it is someone who “doesn’t care about books and interesting films and things,” it makes you laugh because of how ridiculous it is.
This amusing side in Frank can almost be attributed to Linney’s rather refreshing character. While she is just as much to blame for the breakdown of their relationship, every scene we see her in reinforces the fact that she’s just plain tired of this pseudo-intellectual man she married. Again, however, she is neither the victim nor the executioner, as it’s the double dose of narcissism in both of these parents that triggers the mess everyone falls into.
For all the humor laced into the writing, Noah Baumbach’s story (which is in part autobiographical) is rather sad to experience. The funny lines may distract from the depressing events unfolding, but The Squid and the Whale is still at its core a story about the breakdown of a family that just doesn’t know how to handle a divorce. At times delightful and at times sad, it’s an interesting watch to see just how well Baumbach can handle his characters.