The Squid and the Whale (2005) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and language
Running Time: 81 min.

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Halley Feiffer, Anna Paquin
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Review published April 30, 2006

The Squid and the Whale is a provocative dysfunctional family drama, very similar to others of its ilk in story, but very different in execution.  Co-produced by Wes Anderson, the director responsible for another memorable dysfunctional family film in The Royal Tenenbaums, writer-director Noah Baumbach's (Mr. Jealousy, Kicking and Screaming) story is much more personal, drawing from events and situations from his teenage years in Brooklyn, to bring forth an extra element of authenticity to his piece that brings out certain truths. Despite the low budget of the film, Baumbach still manages to pull together a very talented cast, with Golden Globe nominated performances for Laura Linney (Kinsey, P.S.) and Jeff Daniels (Imaginary Heroes, The Hours), and an Oscar nomination for Baumbach himself for his screenplay.  This is a very raw and revealing look into the private lives of a family falling apart, pitting sides against one another in ways that contradict their bonds of love, until they find they must all protect themselves to avoid enduring anymore pain and suffering.

The story take place in Brooklyn during the mid-1980s, where a small family known as the Berkmans are just on the verge of a permanent meltdown.  Jeff Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, a novelist-turned-teacher that has experienced a severe dry spell in terms of his published work, while his wife Joan has just started to come into her own in the same profession.  The muted feelings of inadequacy for the once-superior patriarch leads to a distancing between himself and his wife, to the point where he retreats into emotional isolation, while she seeks the comforts of other men for the love she can no longer feel.  The hurt and resentment soon manifests itself in a tug-of-war for the children, both emotionally and physically, although the battle takes its toll in many ways in the lives of the young boys, who find it difficult to cope with the stress and uncertainty of the instability of their home life.

Baumbach manages to create a fascinating character study of four people struggling through the dissolution of the comfortable world they've built for themselves, willing to endure as much pain as they can possibly stand just to avoid the grief associated with uncertainty.  He infuses many obvious metaphors into the mix, most notably in the opening scene which reveals the match between the father and mother while the boys take up their sides. While some artifice creeps in during the sometimes strange dialogue and sensationalist situations, there is an underlying truth to each scene and character that anchors the film from becoming too overwrought, as many other family crisis dramas tend to suffer from.

There are times when The Squid and the Whale could have used a bit more development, particularly in the character of the mother, who seems, at least superficially, to be the most "normal" of the four main characters.  While we can sympathize with her plight, we never really get a real feel for just who she is, why she does what she does, and how she manages to endure the insults and disdain she is shown on a daily basis from the men too self-absorbed to realize they are creating their own despair. The dialogue can be a bit too artificial at times as well, but the honest characterizations and complex relationship dynamic do manage to make these sorts of nitpicks minor in comparison to the strength of the overall material.

The Squid and the Whale is a sometimes difficult film to watch, but that's only because it is often frank and honest in its portrayal of four very confused, somewhat maladjusted people.  There are no solutions to be found within the context of the film, although some people may ultimately find it to be a cathartic experience, witnessing the horrific daily existence for many families suffering from the same malady of separation, divorce, and the difficulties of the devastating aftermath.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo