As I continue to burn through my newest pile of DVDs, I decide to watch a film I bought on two principles. The first being that it was a movie inducted into the Criteron Collection, and the second being that I found a pre-Criterion edition of it on sale for under two dollars (Canadian, meaning it was roughly four American cents).
The Squid and the Whale is an independent dramatized autobiographical comedy-drama written and directed by Noah Baumbach and produced by Wes Anderson. Don’t worry, it’s not entirely as pretentious as I made it sound there.
The Squid and the Whale follows the Berkmans, a family of four in 1986 being torn apart by an incredibly messy divorce between Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney). Their two sons Frank (Owen Kline) and Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) immediately take sides, with Frank siding with his mother and Walt his father. While it isn’t apparent why Bernard and Joan are separating in the first place, information begins coming to light, further dividing everyone in the family and cementing which sides they have chosen in this petty battle of favors.
When parents go through a tough divorce it can really put a strain on everybody involved, and everyone has different methods of coping with this new stress, healthy or not. The realism of everybody’s choices is a little touch and go at times during the film, between Frank’s apparent descent into abusing alcohol and constantly furiously masturbating at elementary school age and Walt’s decision to perform Pink Floyd’s Hey You at a school talent show and passing it off as his own song. Majority of this film is steeped in realism enough that it’s jarring and beyond my suspension of disbelief when only two people in a massive crowd know that Walt did’t write Hey You. It’s not some major flaw in the film, but it’s something that I feel wasn’t an appropriate choice to make. Maybe I’m just a grump.
I’m not really sure how to feel watching The Squid and the Whale. It’s a comedy, but I don’t think I laughed once. I might’ve sharply exhaled once or twice, but that’s about it. It’s a drama, but I didn’t feel for any of the characters. Everybody in this film is kind of an asshole, but never a lovable asshole. Bernard and Walt are both pretentious intellectual-types, however Walt isn’t well read enough to actually be able to back up his words while his father is almost too well read that he’s become cynical and snobbish about anything related to art. I’m not sure which I hate more. Probably Walt, just because I don’t really like Jesse Eisenberg. Jeff Daniels is alright in my book, though. Both parents are manipulative. They’re writers, after all. Their work is in words, and both Joan and Bernard know how to tear each other apart and how to tug and pull at their children. Not many of the characters in the film seem balanced enough to make them sympathetic.
The Squid and the Whale does make a good case for being your own person. As the saying goes, “I am my mother’s/father’s son/daughter”. Walt and Frank both value the opinion of their favorite parent so much that it overrides their common sense and works against their own desires. Walt finds himself a girlfriend named Sophie. She’s a fine young woman for Walt. She’s well put together, interested in art like he is, and she’s understanding and supportive of him, but Walt ends up breaking up with her for no real reason because his dad offhandedly tells him that young men should date around a bit when they’re at Walt’s age. Walt takes his father’s word as gospel, and it bites him in the ass as he later finds out. At the end of the film, Walt goes against his father’s wishes has a contemplative moment in front of the titular exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s learning. Learning that Bernard is not the be-all-end-all in his life. I can only assume that as Walt grows, he shares his new perspectives with Frank, helping his brother develop, too.
It’s a shame that the film doesn’t explore this aspect of Walt and Frank’s lives, as I think seeing them learn to become their own people under the different households and influences of their parents would be interesting to see. Other than Walt’s regretful breakup with Sophie, we really don’t see any other time that he challenges his father’s perspectives. Having him struggle to find himself would have made this film feel a little more complete. Running at only eighty-one minutes, this film feels a little undercooked. Lessons aren’t really learned, and other than Walt making his revelation in the final forty-five seconds of the film, nobody really has an arc to their character. Everything is pretty well defined in the first act, and the status quo is maintained throughout the whole film.
Maybe I’m just not the target audience for this movie, I don’t know. It’s well acted for the most part, with Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney absolutely stealing the show and the subject matter has the potential to be interesting and engaging, but it ends up feeling rather bland and monotonous. Even visually, The Squid and the Whale doesn’t provide any inspiration. While not poorly shot, I can’t think of any noteworthy camera work, blocking, or environments included in the movie. I don’t quite understand why this film is a Criterion release now, but if the premise interests you, give this one a shot. It’s a quick watch, and maybe you can get something out of it that I couldn’t.