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8th April
2009
written by Steph

When this movie first came out, I distinctly recall it being billed as an indie comedy of sorts.  Not your slapstick Judd Apatow humor, but something a bit more wry and erudite.  Either I am misremembering this appraisal, or else the publicity people got it wrong, because while The Squid & The Whale has a few instances of biting humor, it’s really not a funny movie.  Given that it revolves around the dissolution of a marriage between two writers living in Brooklyn and how this, as well as their insane battle to share their children equally, affects their two sons, you can see how this movie might be of a more serious and somber tone.  In fact, it’s pretty depressing. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy the movie, because we did, but in the kind of way where you watch it through your fingers, check how much time is left every 3 minutes or so (thankfully the movie is mercifully short at 81 minutes), and cringe a whole lot.  I’m not selling the movie well, I realize, and “enjoy” might not be the right word given how painful the film can be at times.  It’s one of those “slice of life” films that is for better or for worse, relentlessly accurate in its portrayal of this family spiraling downwards.  You have to admire how right Noah Baumbach gets the tone of the film and the characters, even if everyone in the movie is fairly loathsome.  And believe me, everyone involved is messed up and vile, but not in a cartoonish outlandish way.  I remarked to Tony that these are people you could actually be unfortunate enough to know in real life and would just flat-out hate: you’d hate the mother for her cavalier infidelity which she tries to intellectualize; the father for his pretentious arrogance and bourgeois aspirations; the teenage son, Walt, who idolizes his father and talks down to his mother and his girlfriend, parrots his father when discussing works of literature he’s never read, and rips off Pink Floyd songs in order to win his school’s talent competition; and the youngest son Frank who isn’t so terrible as he is horribly messed up, drinking tumblers full of brandy and developing bizarre sexual fetishes all at the age of maybe 11 (and that might be stretching his age).  Particularly hard for me, I think, was how unfeeling and selfish the parents were, and when it is revealed that they’re both smug academics (with PhDs in literature, which they naturally lord over the heads of others), it solidified my hatred for the ivory tower once more.  It just goes to show that being a smart person doesn’t make you a good person. I think the thing that makes this difficult movie worthwhile is the performances.  In particular, Jeff Daniels is brilliant in his role as the father, Bernard.  He is so genuine that it’s spooky, because normally he comes across as a lighthearted good-natured guy, but in this film he is a Grade-A asshole.  For that alone you should watch the film.  Laura Linney does a great job as his estranged wife, Joan, and William Baldwin is pitch perfect as the sleezy laid-back tennis instructor, Ivan.  Even the two actors playing Walt and Frank are great!  Apparently Bill Murray was slated to play the role of Bernard, but when he declined, it went to Jeff Daniels, and while Daniels knocks it out of the park, Murray would have made sense in the role too.  There’s a very Wes Anderson feel to the movie (which also makes sense, as he was a producer on the film and was asked to direct it), and The Squid and the Whale ultimately is what you’d get if you crossed The Royal Tenenbaums with the more recent movie Smart People.  It isn’t entertainment, and it certainly isn’t for philistines (as Bernard would say), but it’s good in its own right.  Just not feel-good. Rating: 3 out of 5

5 Comments

  1. 04/08/2009

    My friend has been trying to get me to watch this movie for ages. I think she is under the impression that this is a comedy as well. I think I would have to be in the right mood to watch this movie. Great review, though.

  2. 04/08/2009

    Yes, I think being in the right frame of mind is key for this film. There certainly are moments that have a wry sort of humor to them, but I think when the review on the film poster claims the movie is “painfully funny” that’s about right. Even the humor is underscored by sad moments, so even in those moments it’s quite sobering. Worth watching, but it’s certainly not a light film.

  3. 04/08/2009

    I had the same reaction when I watched this a few years ago. I expected more of an eccentric comedy, but I remember thinking in several parts that it was just plain sad. The acting is wonderful, definitely. And this one is much better (in my opinion) than his second film (I think it was his second?), Margot at the Wedding. The best thing about that one is getting to hate Nicole Kidman all the way through. Her Botox habit makes me cranky.

  4. 04/09/2009

    I liked this movie a lot although I agree that it’s not really funny, just really, really uncomfortable. The parents are both such jerks, and jerks in a completely realistic way, that you can’t help but squirm at their behavior. As I remember, I found the boys to both be sort of awful, but I felt sorry for them because what chance did they have with parents who acted like that.

    I liked Margot at the Wedding as well, but it’s even more painful to watch than this movie, partly because there are people in it who I was inclined to like and Margot’s behavior just made their lives miserable.

  5. 04/09/2009

    @ priscilla: I haven’t seen Margot at the Wedding, mostly because even though I have a freakish thing for Jack Black, it looked like it was going to be maudlin and melodramatic… Also, I read something saying that Margot is a really despicable character, so I wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy it. Then again, it doesn’t seem as though Baumbach sets out to make enjoyable movies!
     
    @ Teresa: Yes, I think part of the reason why this movie is so effective is because it focuses on things that are true. You can’t fault the characterization for its unflinching accuracy. I also agree that while the boys are being shaped to be as miserable as their parents, it’s not really their fault given their upbringing and their situation. It just made me hate the parents all the more! I think I will probably watch Margot at the Wedding some day, but probably not for some time as I need to recover from this one!

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