The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

The funny and interesting thing about Noah Baumbach’s challenging but engaging “The Squid and the Whale” is its disinterest in its subjects’ likability. What matters is for the characters to come across as real as possible, and somewhere within that honesty—that directness—is our inspiration to want to study them a little more closely so that we understand why they behave the way they do, why they say the things they say (especially during most inappropriate times), what their silences mean when the occasion calls for them to speak up and defog the confusion.

The subjects are members of the Berkman family, led by Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) who hold doctorates in literature. We meet them in a tennis match: Bernard paired with Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Joan with Frank (Owen Kline). Mere seconds into the match, we come to have an appreciation of the family’s extremely competitive nature, that the pairs are closer in personality than the ones across from them, and how the opposite teams can combust at a drop of a hat. Competition tends to reveal true character, and this tennis match allows us to take a peek at what’s really going on in this family, especially the unhappiness that is Bernard and Joan’s marriage. A tidal wave called divorce is about to sweep them all away.

Baumbach’s screenplay is not afraid to get specific. He shows then tells. For instance, we observe Bernard’s pompous nature in how he describes the value (or lack thereof) of literary works, movies, girls that his elder son chooses to date. After we are presented a series of questionable (and at times downright condescending) behavior, we wonder how Joan could possibility have endured living under the same room as this man. He is unbearable. But a surprise: even though the relationship looks and feels irreparable, we are given small but important moments when Joan recognizes the traits he loved in the man—as self-important and controlling as he is.

The majority of picture goes on like this. We sit through incidences, which are occasionally quirky, and we are required to observe closely. So when personalities clash inevitably, there is catharsis. We feel sad for them, sorry for them at times, and wonder why they are unable to face their issues with another person head-on. Maybe they’re just exhausted. Or maybe they’ve lived together for so long that it is expected that they be able to read each others’ minds. Even though my family is not at all like the Berkmans, I found myself caring for them despite (or especially because of) their flaws. They try. But sometimes not on a level that they ought to. Perhaps it is their culture, the type of neighborhood they live in and the people they surround themselves with. Or maybe it is the very element that drew in Bernard and Joan seventeen years ago.

I have not even gone into the sons. Like Daniels and Linney, Eisenberg and Kline portray their characters with complexity. Walt captures the interest of a classmate (Halley Feiffer) who is drawn to his intellectualism. We sense it is doomed, but their youths inspire us to wonder whether it might work on the off-chance. Meanwhile, Frank becomes so lonely that he develops certain attention-seeking behavior, like spreading his ejaculate on school property. The divorce makes him feel displaced, like he doesn’t belong anywhere, and so his subconscious inspires him to mark his territory. I found it fresh that I did not feel a close bond between the two brothers.

Although a drama in its core, there is savage humor in “The Squid and the Whale.” But in order to recognize it, we are required to look at the subjects in the eye and truly understand them to the point where, for instance, we know when they are lying and why. The humor is in how human they are, how flawed they are, how we can recognize ourselves in them when shoved into a corner and defenses are up. This is a work for mature and thoughtful audiences.

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