This was the opening-night film at the 2005 Asheville Film Festival; in all honesty, it didn’t seem like much of a coup at the time. That is, until we actually got to see this remarkable little movie — which, incidentally, has since picked up Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Jesse Eisenberg), Best Female Lead (Laura Linney) and Best Male Lead (Jeff Daniels). Not too shabby, but then neither is the film.
Owing to Baumbach’s having co-written Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Anderson having co-produced The Squid and the Whale, there’s been a tendency to want to lump Baumbach and his film together with Anderson — despite that Squid more resembles The Royal Tenenbaums, if it resembles anything of Anderson’s at all.
However, Baumbach’s film, with its tight 88 minute running time and less-fanciful approach, probably has more in common with the best of Woody Allen than with the work of Anderson. And Baumbach offers a nice alternative to the Woodman, considering Allen’s disappointing Match Point (more on it when the film goes into wide release in January). It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Bernard (Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Linney) as the characters that Allen theorized having met (in Annie Hall) through a personal ad in the Times Literary Supplement that involved a 40-ish “bookish type interested in James Joyce and sodomy.”
In truth, Bernard and Joan are based on Baumbach’s real-life parents, novelist Jonathan Baumbach and movie critic Georgia Brown, and the film observes the disintegration of their marriage and the effect it has on their sons. Their boys in the film are Walt (Eisenberg, Cursed) and Frank (Owen Kline, the real-life son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), who react in markedly different ways to their parents’ breakup. Not surprisingly, the boys end up choosing sides — the older son, Walt, taking up for his father, with Frank siding with his mother — and rebelling in different ways.
Walt finds out from his father that his mother has been having an affair for years. The boy views the situation in terms of her betrayal of his father, whom he tends to idolize in the first place — and whom he would like to resemble, but is too young and lacks the requisite frame of reference to pull it off. He wants to be able to make “impressive” assessments of literary endeavors, as when his father dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens.” However, the best Walt can come up with is calling The Metamorphosis “Kafkaesque,” which merely earns him the comment that since Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, it would be remarkable if it wasn’t Kafkaesque.
Walt wants to create, but he’s at the stage and age where creativity amounts to little more than copying others. As a result, he learns how to play Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” and palms it off as an original composition, viewing the plagiarism as a kind of technicality since he so connects with the song that he feels he could have written it (something his parents and counselors stupidly overlook in not considering what he’s saying to them with these lyrics). Walt so follows his father’s examples that he botches a perfectly good relationship with a girl, based on advice that he can do better and should play the field — making him end up fixated on a girl with whom his father also becomes involved.
Frank’s youthful clinging to his mother is simpler in motivation, and his rebellion more direct. In taking his mother’s side, he also takes the side of her latest paramour, the family tennis instructor, Ivan (William Baldwin). When Frank’s father characterizes Ivan as a “philistine,” Frank decides that he’s also a philistine — the most nightmarish concept Bernard can imagine for a son of his. Frank has also discovered masturbation and has developed the habit of smearing his semen around the school — not surprisingly, this is something viewed as socially unacceptable by the powers that be.
In the end, Baumbach’s film is about coming to terms with reality — expressed symbolically by the title’s reference to a diorama of a fight between a squid and a whale at the Museum of Natural History, which both attracted and frightened Walt in his earlier years.
What’s surprising about all this is that Baumbach neither spares nor romanticizes, nor condemns himself, his parents, his brother, or anyone else as he examines this time in his life. Instead, he approaches all his characters with a love for their flaws as well as their virtues, and this is what makes Squid a remarkable film — far beyond the much-touted accomplishment of having been made on a low budget during a whirlwind 23-day shooting schedule.
Yes, it’s impressive that a slick, professional-looking film can be done in that manner, but it’s the content that ultimately matters — and the content is first-rate. If you make time during the Christmas-blockbuster season to take a break from giant apes and messianic lions, The Squid and the Whale will pay rich dividends. Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke