Ever wonder why there are so few movies about families? They are one of the great subjects, and one of which we’re all a part. But because Los Angeles is a rootless place, Hollywood goes for the shallow and flashy. A newcomer, Noah Baumbach, has made a movie called The Squid and the Whale , torn from personal experience of a disintegrating family. It cuts down to the bone.
The tone is set early in the film: two teenage brothers sit in the back of a car, watching their parents in the front seat. They are absorbing the silence and tension between the parents, but are clueless about its cause. That’s the film’s point of view; parents seen from the back seat, or heard arguing downstairs, always on the other side of a closed door.
Both parents, Jeff Daniels as Bernard and Laura Linney as Joan, are PhD’s in literature. Like many brilliant people, they have no ability to filter what they say. Their seventeen year marriage has just passed the point of no return. They tell the kids, "Tonight we’re going to have a family conference." "What’s that?" the kids ask. This family has long since stopped talking about what matters, if it ever did.
It’s almost inevitable, when people we love divorce, that we should pick a side. That one person is a villain is universally not the case: it takes two to tango. The younger boy, Frank (Owen Kline ) – he’s eleven or twelve – is just starting to get screwed up. He sticks with the mother. The older boy, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) – he’s about seventeen, and a dead ringer for Dave Stoller in Breaking Away – aligns with the father. This is a logical development for Walt; he has always been in awe of his father, and parrots Bernard’s dismissive opinions of literature and people at the expense of his own. When Walt asks Bernard if he likes his girlfriend, Bernard says, "She’s okay. Not the type I usually go for. Maybe you should sleep with her once, see if you like it, then play the field."
Jeff Daniels will be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a complex man. Bernard is angry, pretentious, manipulative, thoughtless, selfish and self-pitying. There’s a word for a person like that, but you can’t say it on the radio. He doesn’t so much love his family as he likes having them around to stave off a deep solipsism that perhaps he’s always felt. Yet we forgive him, because he can’t help himself, and the one who is most punished is him.
The Squid and the Whale leavens the pain with compassion and humor. It was produced by Wes Anderson, who directed The Royal Tennebaums and Rushmore . It has some of Anderson’s wistfulness; but it’s shot using a lot of handheld camera, which makes it as intimate as eavesdropping. It’s the kind of movie, made without glamour or gloss, where actors really dig in. It’s set in the ’80s, but it could have been made in the ’70’s; and that’s high praise indeed.
This review was recorded earlier in the week. If you are hearing it on Tuesday, my guess is you’ll have until Thursday to see the movie. If you’re hearing this on Friday, you may have missed your chance to see The Squid and the Whale theatrically. Seek it out on DVD. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.