With the Criterion release of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale, Jake relives the pain of divorce and adolescence
Baumbach was struggling to get his screenplay funded, despite the mid-nineties success of Kicking and Screaming; so he turned to Wes Anderson, co-writer on The Life Aquatic, for assistance. Thankfully, Wes agreed to produce this low-budget, semi-autobiographical, divorce-porn indie flick.
Anyone who has had the misfortune to experience parental separation at a young age (Jake included) will acknowledge the pain and excruciating shame resulting from the ensuing tug-of-war. Here, Baumbach confronts the delusion, hyperbole and reassessment of treasured memories, triggered by this oh-so-common fracture of nuclear families, head-on.
The film opens with an excoriating display of male / paternal competitiveness, during which toes are not only curled, but simultaneously in-grown and imploded.
It’s like a second honeymoon
The eldest son of successful writers, Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt Berkman is acutely aware of the academic heritage and expectation placed on his narrow shoulders. To begin with, he is in thrall to his erudite father; Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a published author with low-level critical acclaim. However, despite increased facial hair and poor dress-sense, Bernard’s star is very much in the descendant. Walt’s mother, Joan (Laura Linney), is rapidly stepping out of her spouse’s shadow, and is shown hammering her latest piece home on a typewriter, ignoring Bernard’s sage advice.
The younger son, Frank (Owen Kline), sides with Joan when new living arrangements are proposed; unaware that his mother has been sleeping with his tennis coach for some time. Frank refuses to sympathise with Bernard, and sets out on a path of onanism, not only in both parental homes, but throughout his school. His ‘ectoplasm’ is discovered by the school Principal, and both parents are summoned, with Bernard proposing that other pupils may well be distributing similar effluvium.
Bernard abandons Frank, opting to join Walt and his girlfriend on a trip to the cinema; Walt initially chooses Short Circuit for his first date, but his father’s recommendation of Blue Velvet wins out. We see explicit scenes of nudity, as witnessed by the cinema audience, and then the reactions of Bernard, Walt and his girlfriend. This is followed by a pivotal scene in a restaurant, where Bernard accepts tentative payment from Walt’s girlfriend; exposing Bernard’s hypocrisy and financial constraints, and the demise of Walt’s hero-worship.
Walt becomes fixated on Lilli (Anna Paquin), one of his father’s students, who in turn becomes fixated with Bernard and his supposed academic status. Lilli moves in with Bernard and Walt, creating tension and defining the divide between the failed author/father and the aspiring academic/virgin son.
The electro-synth soundtrack is reminiscent of Risky Business; another teenage rite of sexual passage narrative, but this time the ignorance and awkwardness results in a nose-bleed, as opposed to a sock-wearing orgasm.
Gratifyingly, there is no learning or hugging during the denouement; there is even a nod to Cassavettes, in terms of the endless parental/marital/patricide/matricide/fratricide cycle. Bernard remains the narcissist he has always been; Walt and Frank begrudgingly accept Joan’s desire to sleep with Ivan (Lendl); Kubrick weeps at the refusal to utilise steadicam; Pink Floyd ullulate during Eisenberg’s slaughtering of ‘Hey You’…
This review was based on the delightful Criterion Blu Ray, which captures the quintessence of Bob Yeoman’s Super 16 cinematography, and includes supplementary footage from Noah Baumbach, the cast, and original auditions.