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Noah’s Arc: Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale”

Noah's Arc: Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale"

Barely cracking the 80-minute mark and covering well-trod ground, “The Squid and the Whale” is the kind of movie that courts underappreciation. Noah Baumbach‘s fourth feature is of a familiar genre, the broken-family “bildungsroman,” and its denizens are known to us as well — this is the urbane, intellectual bourgeoisie of Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and countless imitators. Further flirting with hermetic self-regard, the movie barely leaves its brownstone-lined milieu or strays from the family whose collapse it reconstructs. And yet by the end of this brisk but rich film, an expansive constellation of ideas and emotions will have emerged, a density barely hinted at by its modest surface. Small yet hardly slight, “The Squid and the Whale” is the most perceptive film about parents and children to come out since Wes Anderson‘s “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

Set in the Park Slope of its director’s eighties adolescence, the movie draws the battle lines with its first words: “Me and mom against you and dad.” Spoken by 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), it sets up the tennis match that opens the movie and the familial struggle to come. Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney), married 17 years, sit Frank and 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) down one night to tell them that they are splitting up. The fallout from this separation is limned in unsparing detail: allegiances form, the brothers act out, and humiliations pile up.

The movie accumulates its details and insights with affectless economy. One utterance is enough to set off a daisy chain of resonances; a stray detail, like a poster on a wall or a novel’s dust jacket, hints at unknowable back stories. Channeling Baumbach’s own parents — writer Jonathan Baumbach and former “Village Voice” critic Georgia Brown — Daniels and Linney embody the movie’s impressive absence of vanity. Baumbach pairs off each of the Berkmans and has them engage in painful, and at times vicious, hand-to-hand combat. But even as recriminations fly, the film beautifully renders the implacable logic of growing up: the mimicry of a parent’s tastes, the adoption of their values, the anxiety of aspiring to past achievements. “The Squid and the Whale” depicts how such verities can warp into illusions upon leaving childhood.

That departure is the movie’s subject. Kline and Eisenberg give nuanced and fearless performances–particularly impressive for the younger Kline, who bracingly taps into a reservoir of male perversities and irrationalities. A portrait of people ill-equipped to be parents, Baumbach’s film shares a theme with Anderson’s “Tenenbaums.” In both movies, the parental choice to treat children as equals can be admirable but also suggests a deeper selfishness that seems fundamentally at odds with the job. For all of its distanced recollection of events perhaps lived through, “The Squid and the Whale” never sells its characters short. Detached yet affectionate, it critiques but never judges — a difficult balancing act.

Indeed, “The Squid and the Whale” deserves praise as much for what it is as for what it avoids becoming. The premise reeks of “write what you know” solipsism, the kind of workshop banality that transforms the dignified humdrum of our lives into ersatz epiphanies (I’m looking at you, Cameron Crowe). Averse to cliche, Baumbach sidesteps that mine gracefully. A second, less fatal trap is the movie’s possible pigeon-holing into a tiresome genre: the “New Yorker” movie. Trafficking in witty repartee, highbrow name-dropping, and handsome brownstones, it seems on paper the latest in a long line that stretches from “Annie Hall” to “Metropolitan” to “Igby Goes Down.” Like the magazine, such movies — and, perhaps more importantly, their devotees–tend to prize word over image, wit over wisdom, intellect (or its facsimile) over emotion. “The Squid and the Whale” shares their fetishization of New York intellectual life but tops them all with its unassuming universality and attention to form. (Come to think of it, Baumbach, who writes the occasional humor piece for “The New Yorker,” would likely make a better critic than the dilettantes who currently sit there.)

Baumbach is probably best known as the co-writer of Anderson’s worst movie, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” recognition that borders on insult for those of us who trade quotes from Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming” like some secret handshake. The connection continues in this movie: Anderson produced, and his cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, shot the film. If there’s any justice, “The Squid and the Whale” should make Baumbach a front-rank American independent auteur. Intensely personal without being grandstanding, “The Squid and the Whale” is the work of an intellectual who has figured out how to balance the cerebral with the emotional. It is as much proof, as it is a portrait, of the artist working his way to maturity.

[Elbert Ventura is a Reverse Shot staff writer and a frequent contributor to the New Republic Online.]

A scene from Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” Photo by James Hamilton. Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films & Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Take 2

by James Crawford

Noah Baumbach penned “The Squid and the Whale,” inspired by incidents culled from his own adolescent experiences. Yet Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is more of an aggregate of reprehensible characteristics than a fleshed-out character; he’s flawed to such a great extent that he’s fundamentally uninteresting. An author suffering from mid-life crisis and denial because the public no longer fawns over his work, Bernard gives liberalism a bad name by embodying its worst traits. He has a familiar faux-intelligentsia obsession with consuming socially sanctioned books and films (and renders deliberately contrarian opinions on them), disdains less engaged individuals as Philistines, and wraps himself in a cocoon of self-righteous rationalization so that he doesn’t have to account for the emotional fallout from any of his actions — or deal with his life’s pains. And then he bequeaths his neuroses onto his kids. Small wonder Squid leaves me cold when Bernard is pitched as the film’s sympathetic center.

Or is he? Through Bernard’s son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), Baumbach does an admirable job of conjuring the profound weirdness of adolescence — as well as the trauma of going through that tumult with the added baggage of divorcing parents and nomadic alternate nights of joint custody. Eisenberg’s is a touchingly pathetic portrait of a young man whose folks have armed him with all kinds of verbal dexterity but have insufficiently attended to his emotional needs. So Walt is adept at blaming Dad’s recent literary failures on a cloddish public yet woefully inept at dealing with his sexual awakening. It’s the stuff that every kid goes through, but Bernard is more to blame than most: he admonishes Walt that he could potentially “do better” than his current girlfriend, enlightening him in the benefits of being a free agent and playing the field. Therein lies the most poignant, maddening aspect: Walt desperately wants to be like his dad, at least until “Squid”‘s ultimate moment of clarity. And though the film is ultimately troubling, it appeals to me as a sermon to narcissistic parents: Talk at your kids a little less, and hug them a little more.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for Film Comment and the Village Voice. ]

A scene from Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” Photo by James Hamilton. Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films & Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Take 3

by Eric Hynes

According to Lester, the aphoristic Alan Alda character in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Comedy is Tragedy plus Time.” By this logic, a 20-year remove served Noah Baumbach well: his fiction of his parents’ divorce, “The Squid and the Whale,” is very funny. Yet distance, in Baumbach’s gutsy approach, doesn’t soften the blow. He returns to, and recreates, the source of pain, recalling with exacting detail the confusion, desperation, and mortification of coming of age while the family is coming apart. To tangle another Lesterism, the characters here might be bent, but they’re also broken. Jokes land, at even the lowest of times, but not without leaving a bruise.

Crucially, Baumbach finds the right angle of refraction for his recollection, so that slight exaggerations of behavior and speech characterize and editorialize without eschewing plausibility. Bernard Berkman’s (Jeff Daniels) narcissism might be unrelenting (and manipulative and self-defeating), but I can’t blame him–he’s utterly wounded and wounds require a lot of attention. And when the boys, Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) commit emotional kamikaze, their acts are extreme but the impact feels sound.

Wes Anderson, Baumbach’s contemporary and sometimes collaborator, employs the same technique, but with a greater degree of exaggeration, isolating instead brief, standout moments of overwhelming poignancy. Though I enjoy Anderson’s work, I prefer — and greatly respect — Baumbach’s more loyal dedication to real behavior and real consequences. Moments don’t appear, they build, repel, and recoil, come off all wrong and hang around too long. And rather than find comfort or release in a following scene, they accumulate, form character, and take on meaning; such moments become part of who we are, and part of what makes us want to look back from the future and make sense of ourselves and of the people we loved, trusted, betrayed and were betrayed by. “The Squid and the Whale” manages to suggest some answers to its very adult questions while honoring — and carrying forth — the inscrutability of adolescence, a state of being unique from adulthood only in its belief that such inscrutability is only temporary.

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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