The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Halley Feiffer, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
This was the 2005 film that I most wanted to see but didn’t, so it was about time I cleared that one up. A semi-autobiographical tale of writer/director Noah Baumbach‘s parents’ divorce in 1980s New York City. The film garnered some attention during awards season, mostly with independent and film critic awards, including an Oscar nomination for Baumbach for Best Original Screenplay. Most years, there’s one quiet indie that I usually love that becomes a personal favourite. In the past couple of years, there’s been Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Before Sunset, and Lost in Translation, but for 2005, I kept coming up empty.
Sadly, like Junebug and Broken Flowers before it, The Squid and the Whale was also a disappointment. Luckily, it was a much better film than either of those, so it wasn’t a complete loss. In fact, there’s a lot of good things to say about the movie. But, ultimately, it just didn’t come together.
The strongest aspect in the film is the characters, who are interesting and unique, while feeling, for the most part, like real people going through an all-too-average family trauma. Jeff Daniels burns through the screen with his portrayal of family patriarch Bernard, an astounding egotist of an intellectual. Bernard is instantly unlikeable, encouraging his oldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) to attack his mother’s weak backhand during a supposedly-friendly game of tennis. For his part, Walt (Noah Baumbach’s character in the movie) idolizes his father, and emulates his father’s know-it-all attitude and passes off Bernard’s uncompromising opinions as his own.
Bernard gets worse after the divorce is announced, seeming uninterested in connecting with his younger son Frank (Owen Kline) while giving his eldest son terrible advice that is reflective of his own extreme narcissism. Surprisingly, Baumbach presents his alter-ego Walt as an insufferable brat, unable to see past his hero worship and realise any of his father’s flaws. Which only serves to make Bernard more unlikeable, because it is clear who is to blame for his son’s shortcomings.
However, just when you’re ready to dismiss Bernard as irredeemable, Daniels is able to bring a vulnerability to Bernard, revealing him to be a sad, defeated man, desperately clinging to Walt’s hero worship as his writing career becomes less successful as the years go by. It really is a tour de force performance by Daniels, who brings his character complexity with a quiet intensity. Eisenberg is solid as Walt, as insufferable as he was for most of the movie (until the final act, when he experiences the eventual revelation that resulted in Baumbach making this movie).
Unfortunately, while Walt finally does experience a revelation, the movie doesn’t. We already knew Bernard was a jackass, so nothing new is presented by the end of the movie that we didn’t figure out half an hour into it. While Daniels is superb in his role, Laura Linney is given the short end with her role as matriarch Joan, a budding author whose success is now outshining Bernard’s. We never really get a sense as to what her motivation in the movie is, and while we can understand that she’d want to be rid of Bernard, she isn’t free of guilt for the deterioration of the relationship. However, her transgressions aren’t developed, as Baumbach seems disinterested in her role. Linney does what she can with the role, making Joan sympathetic despite her flaws, but too often the movie seems less about a dysfunctional family, and more about Baumbach’s daddy issues.
Other characters, such as Frank and William Baldwin‘s tennis pro Ivan are interesting at first with their quirks, but later become tiresome as they fail to develop past a mere collection of quirks. Anna Paquin gives the film some energy with her role as Lili, an undergrad student of Bernard and crush-object of Walt. But none of the characters or moments tie the film together in any meaningful way. There are small moments of brilliance in this film, but, in the end, fail to come together.