Tuesday, December 13, 2005
While I wouldn’t call The Squid and the Whale a “fun” movie to watch—it is acerbic and wryly humorous as it chronicles the breakdown of a family in 1986 Brooklyn, New York. It’s one of the best films of the year and one that never removes us from this family’s tense, dysfunctional splintering apart.
Meet the Berkmans: Dad Bernard is a bushy bearded Jeff Daniels. Bernard is the intellectual patriarch of an intellectual family whose own career as a writer has hit difficult times just as his wife (Laura Linney) has hers take off.
The two kids, Walt—a teenager—and his younger brother Frank—are as messed up as their parents and act out in various ways. One steals song lyrics as his own and spouts out Bernard’s opinions and alienates a nice girl he’s seeing; the other curses like a sailor, masturbates in school and wipes his semen on lockers and library books as if he’s marking his territory. As you might say—the kids are f-ed up.
Bernard and Joan are having flings soon after the separation—Bernard with a 20 year old student (Anna Paquin) who writes short stories about her vagina (at least according to Bernard and his over-analytical mind); Joan with the tennis pro Ivan (Billy Baldwin), who is a “philistine” according to Bernard, and who likes to call everyone “brotha.”
Any movie with repeated use of the word philistine is okay in my book.
When Bernard and Joan separate, the kids are literally split between to two parents and they become even more difficult as both are faced with all kinds of complicated issues of loyalty. No kid is ever ready to face, or should have to, the issues that they have to face when parents divorce—but that doesn’t stop the adults thinking kids should choose one parent or the other.
The Squid and the Whale is one of the more honest, cringe-inducing films regarding divorce and the bitter hostility that seethes below the surface in a family when it breaks apart. It makes a film like Kramer V. Kramer seem as if it is a silly TV melodrama.
The Squid and the Whale is honest, or blunt, in how it portrays the hidden rages of these people and might be too realistic for some. Anything may cause the rages to bubble to the surface—ping pong, tennis, talking about books, anything. I found it refreshingly bitter to the very end. It would have been very easy for writer/director Noah Baumbach to soften the story but he never does. Good for Baumbach as softening the story would have denigrated from a very smart, caustic little movie.
I’m a long term Jeff Daniels fan and he gives one of the best performances of his career as the opinion-spouting father who is full of just that—opinions. It seems as if all the enjoyment of “discovering” is lost to him and all he can do now is analyze and suffocate all around him. It’s a complex, joyless performance from Daniels and one of my favorites of the year.
It’s interesting The Squid and the Whale was released in the holiday season where we get cheer and pleasantry in release after release. I loathe the phoniness of Christmas “spirit” that sometimes exists, so I love to see something running against that current. It’s a great antidote to the “perfect worlds” often created in films out now and is an honest, dark, smart, funny, bitter look at a family crumbling apart at the seams. Highly recommended.
Posted by Joshua Blevins Peck at 12:46 PM