The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The Squid and the Whale: 2005, dir. Noah Baumbach. Seen at The Dobie (Jan. 29, 2006).
I was hesitant about seeing The Squid and the Whale; a friend of mine told me the characters were too unsympathetic and that I should pick something else at The Dobie instead. But I was curious: I enjoyed The Life Aquatic, which Baumbach co-wrote, and wanted to see what kind of movie he wrote and directed. Also, I have liked Jeff Daniels since The Purple Rose of Cairo, and he’d been receiving a lot of attention for The Squid and the Whale.
I can see why Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson worked well together; if you removed the quirky sweetness from The Royal Tenenbaums and saw the characters as the people they really are—in particular, Gene Hackman’s character when the kids were teenagers—you’d find characters who fit in the world of The Squid and the Whale.

The characters in The Squid and the Whale are not wholly sympathetic; Daniels’ character in particular is a real bastard. But he never falls into stereotype; we can see him as a real person. That’s what I liked best about The Squid and the Whale; the characters struck me as real people: often unlikeable, but plausible and understandable.
I also can understand that many of us (me included, usually) don’t want to see real people, warts and all, in movies … we take a certain comfort in stereotypes, or in people who turn out to be nice after all, etc. If we wanted to see real people acting unpleasant, we could find them easily in real life.
Various critics have been raving about Jeff Daniels’s performance in this movie, but I was also impressed both with Laura Linney and with the way her character was written. She isn’t your garden-variety Supportive Wife and Mom; or rather, one suspects that the character tried that role, couldn’t stand it anymore, and decided she wanted to be a real person instead. She’s more sympathetic than her ex-husband (Daniels), but not perfect by any means.
I keep talking about the characters without telling you who they are and what this movie is actually about. The Squid and the Whale, set in the mid-1980s, is about a divorce, with the focus on how it affects the kids in the family. (Baumbach allegedly based the movie on his own parents’ divorce and the way he and his brother handled it.) The husband, Bernard (Daniels), is a formerly successful novelist who can’t seem to get published to his satisfaction anymore, and who blames all aspects of the divorce on his wife, Joan (Linney). Linney is becoming a well-known author in her own right, and after the separation, starts dating the boys’ tennis instructor, Ivan (William Baldwin). Meanwhile, Bernard gets involved with one of his students, Lili (Anna Paquin).
Bernard is such an egotistical prick, acting as though the world centers around him, that the movie can’t help but gravitate toward him. But the real story is with the sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). Walt wants to be just like his dad; he quotes him while wooing a potential girlfriend, takes his advice on books to read, and even wants to score with Lili. He believes his dad’s rants against his mom and can’t stand her. He can’t write or do anything creative to please his dad, so he passes off a Roger Waters song as his own.
Meanwhile, the younger son Frank leans toward his mom and away from his dad. When his dad calls Ivan a philistine and explains what it is, Frank decides he’s a philistine, too, much to Bernard’s disgust. Bernard dotes on Walt but forgets to pick Frank up one weekend, abandoning him alone in his mom’s house. Frank also develops some disturbing habits after his parents split up; neither parent notices the way he casually drinks beer from the can in his bedroom, and the school recommends therapy after discovering that he masturbates rather freely in the school library.
The divorce is ugly and both parents are ugly in dealing with it, although again, Joan is less nasty than Bernard. The kids are supposed to alternate days at their parents’ homes; even the cat is handed from house to house each day. I thought about encouraging my sister to see this movie so she could watch a divorce much worse than her own, and even more appalling custody issues; but I don’t think that it would help. (Also, the movie isn’t playing in the New Orleans area.)
Why in the world would I like a movie about a painful divorce, an asshole of a dad who treats his kids like shit, and kids struggling to deal with the awful situation? That sounds like the kind of movie I would normally hate; I’m fond of intelligent comedies as a rule, and don’t care at all for heavy-handed drama. (This is why I’ve seen so few of the Oscar-nominated films this year.)
I can only say that The Squid and the Whale is that good a movie, that it was compelling and absorbing and portrayed characters that I felt deeply about, even if they were terrible people in many ways. The acting is uniformly commendable. I grow tired of watching stereotypes and predictable situations. Certainly we all have times when we want to sit down and watch something comfortablly entertaining, in which we know what will happen and are just there to enjoy the standard ride, the usual comedy or drama. After awhile, though, I want to see something thought-provoking and different and complex, and The Squid and the Whale was that kind of movie.