Review: The Squid and the Whale

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The Squid and the Whale
Daniel Thomas

Most celebrated to date for co-writing The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson (who produces here), the third film by director Noah Baumbach is far removed from the more whimsical offerings of his associate. This is instead a poignant comedy about divorce in a middle class 1980s New York family, which scores with its subtlety, and not surprisingly managed a best screen play nomination at the Oscars, as well as featuring in a handful of Golden Globe categories.

In the elegant setting of the brownstone buildings of Brooklyn’s Park Slopes, the marriage of wilful intellectuals Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) collapses, leaving their offspring to handle the fall out. Bernard, a domineering and ego-centric literary professor, expertly played by Daniels, is facing a commercial drought with his writing, while his adulterous wife has her work published in the New Yorker much to his disgust. Forced to move to a new neighbourhood and stuck in a bubble of his own self importance, he attempts to forge his two sons, 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) and 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) in his own image. While Jesse looks up to his father, glibly using adjectives like ‘Kafkaesque’ to impress his friends, Frank rejects him, gravitating towards his wayward mother and her new beau, the ‘philistine’ tennis coach William Baldwin.

As the couple bitterly fight out their custody rights, Baumbach perfectly shows how unable the children are to comprehend the behaviour of their parents. Jesse takes his father’s side as betrayed husband, punishing his mother for her promiscuity while Frank slides off the rails, turning to drink and bizarre masturbation practises. The brothers\’ confused attempts to express anger and frustration create much of the film\’s comedy, along with their father\’s refusal to accept the judgements of teachers, councillors or anyone else over his own.

Underpinning the film is a look at the shifting attitudes of the 1980s, when the roles of men, women and the family unit were being changed forever. As middle class academics, the Berkman\’s are perfect examples of people who advocate yet struggle to accept these radical changes. Visually the movie is also a trip down memory lane , captured in the grainy glory of Super-16 with characters decked out in authentic New Balance trainers, overly tight sportswear and brown cord jackets just-like-your-dad\’s. The proggy soft rock soundtrack is the cherry on top, featuring the likes of Pink Floyd circa The Wall.

Autobiographical to a degree (with the houses of a childhood friends used as shoot locations) Baumbach\’s script leaves you cringing in your seat, tapping into the barmy internal workings of family life, that everyone, at least in part, can relate to. He avoids sentimentality and keeps things subtle, as seen with the metaphor alluded to by the film\’s title: \’The Squid and the Whale\’, a diorama at New York\’s natural history museum is a place Jesse used to visit with his mother in happier times, and it is to this lost innocence he returns as a final resort. Summing up, Baumbach gets stellar performances from all his cast, in particular Owen (son of Kevin) Kline, and has left us a low key gem that bypasses the ‘quirky’ factor exhausted by so many independent American films of late.