24 December 2005

current cinema: The Squid and the Whale


starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline
written by: Noah Baumbach
directed by: Noah Baumbach
R, 80 min, 2005, USA

Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, a small little film in which a literary couple divorces and shares joint custody of their kids, shares a similar DNA with a littany of poems and short stories and first screenplays, but with one glaring difference: It's actually good. In fact, it happens to be very good--the type of film that will show up on a large number of year-end lists and pop up every so often in the Oscar discussion. A large number of people will hope against hope it gets nominated for Best Picture and mutter vague threats about the Academy when it invariably ends up with a sole Screenplay nod. But no matter, for this is the type of film that film buffs will periodically watch when they need a reminder that not every autobiographical film is automatically self-indulgent rubbish.

Jeff Daniels gives the film's best performace as Bernard Berkman, a formerly important novelist who's become a penny-pinching creative writing teacher after his wife Joan (Laura Linney) starts to become a successful writer herself. He looks exactly the way you'd expect a creative writing teacher in 1986 Brooklyn to look, right down to the graying beard. His one passion in life, other than his work of being an intellectual, is tennis. He refers constantly to McEnroe and Connors and other tennis greats, using them as a measuring stick by which to demean his son's tennis coach, Ivan (William Baldwin) and has this great desire to be loved and needed and, most of all, respected, but is unwilling to put forth any real effort toward that goal. When going to the movies with his son and his girlfriend (to see Blue Velvet, no less), he has the gall to accept cash from his son's girlfriend when they get food after the movie. In a great many ways, he operates from the same worldview of Gene Hackman's patriarch in The Royal Tennenbaums (2001), or at very least they were probably drinking buddies.

The entire film, actually, comes from a similar milleu as Wes Anderson's examination of a dysfuntional family[1]. Ivan the tennis pro is seen mostly in vintage Fila shirts, and for most of the film I fully expected to see a poster of Richie Tennenbaum in the youngest son's room.[2] I imagine the best litmus test to determine if you will enjoy The Squid and the Whale is to decide if you liked The Royal Tennenbaums. Few people will like one and not the other.

That is not to say that they are so similar that they become redundant. Baumbach shoots in a rough, uneasy handheld style because his protangonists are two children almost entirely disoriented by their parent's divorce. The youngest has taken to masterbating in school and spreading his semen around, and the oldest has started claiming Pink Floyd lyrics to be his own because he feels he could have written them, so the mere fact that he didn't, that they were already written, is a minor technicality. The eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) idolizes his father, often asking him what he thinks of the books he has to read in school, so that when he's told a book is "minor Dickens", he feels free to ignore it, but does not bother to read "major Dickens" either. He does not, as his teacher points out, bother to read anything at all, not even The Great Gatsby, which he claims as his favorite book. When he uses the phrase "Kafkaesque" in front of his girlfriend, she goes to the trouble to read Kafka. This proves to be problematic when she tries to discuss it with him, only to learn that he clearly knows nothing about Kafka or his work.

The film's title is a reference to a museum exhibit from his childhood the oldest son remembers as particularly frightening, but provides a basis for conjuring positive memories of his mother. It reminds him of a time when they were a happy family without the petty jealousy and dischord that's currently such a big part of their lives. If there's any sort of redemption in a film like this, it's the simple redemption of remembering when things were better and you didn't hate your mother, because if it can lead to viewing her as something other than the woman who ruined your father's life, that's a major step.

It isn't often that a film runs less than 90 minutes for a good reason, but Baumbach (who won a screenplay award for this at Sundance) is able to tell his story so quickly and so effectively that we don't mind the missing minutes. A great many films could learn from this example that padding those 15 minutes to make the normal feature length may seem like a good idea at the time, but usually ends up in disaster. My old high school english teacher used to say "make it long enough to cover the subject", and at 80 minutes, The Squid and the Whale is long enough to cover the subject without starting to wear a bit thin. I daresay it is probably the best 80 minute film to reach mulitplexes all year.

[1] Baumbach co-wrote Anderson's The Life Aquatic (2004) and Anderson produced this film, so the similarities are probably not imagined.

[2] This is something I definitely would have done, were I Baumbach. This begs the question of whether or not the inclusion of the poster is a good instinct on my part, or if it would come off as self-referential and crass.