Apparently Yuppies haven’t been skewered enough on film, because Noah Baumbach feels compelled to do so in The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach, who already shares the dubious distinction of co-writing The Life Aquatic, also is now guilty of openly stealing from his partner Wes Anderson. Squid feels like vérité Tenenbaums lite, mining the same terrain sans similar visual élan—and populated with folks who are even more vacuous and disagreable. Jeff Daniels is Bernard, a morass of Brooklyn upper-middle-class, faux-intelligentsia bourgeois liberalism, trapped in a viciously defended cul-de-sac of his own self-righteous language. Coping (badly, mind you) with the public’s waning interest in his novels, he adopts a wearily predictable obsession with reading the “right books” and seeing “interesting films”—while disdaining those who don’t as “Philistines.” His wife Joan (Laura Linney) is an up-and-coming author; a barely registered screen presence whose worst offences are surreptitiously screwing said “Philistines” and becoming more critically acclaimed than her hubby. And then the parents pass on their neuroses to their sons. The elder spews Dad’s haughty middle-brow wisdom at school to pick up naive chicks while the younger copes with his parents’ separation and abandonment—first figurative, then literal—by chugging cans of beer, or by jerking off at school and spreading his spooge on lockers and library books. Ugh. Sometimes the jokes write themselves.
At Squid‘s NYFF press conference, Baumbach confessed to a high degree of autobiographical detail. He lived in the same Park Slope neighbourhood, experienced a similarly messy divorce, even played tennis in the very same arena. So you’d be forgiven for expecting his characters to be a mite sympathetic. The kids, maybe: they absorb their parents’ anxieties by osmosis and can’t help themselves. But Bernard is positively hateful. I’m supposed to care about a guy who is more in love with books and inflicting emotional damage on his ex (“I feel banished” is but one memorable line spat at Joan as she kicks Bernard out of her house) than his kids? I can take him as farce, but if that’s the case, making a straw man out of a despairing failed author facing a mid-life crisis is facile for a director-screenwriter of such obvious intelligence and verbal dexterity.
My vitriol was tempered today by Eshman, who said (and correct me if I’m wrong), there was a certain comfort in watching The Squid and the Whale, because he’s old enough to have remembered that era of the mid-80s, and all its ambient artefacts—clothing, trinkets, and especially the soundtrack. And maybe I’m about 6 years too young to share the same feeling, which is one reason why it doesn’t speak to me. But warm and fuzzy nostalgia is a neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to proclaim a film “great.”