The Squid and the Whale

Director: Noah Baumbach

At the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film about the events surrounding the divorce of his parents in 1980’s Brooklyn and the effect it had on himself and his brother, we overhear a boy sum up the entire film in the opening few moments by stating that one child is siding with one parent verses his brother with the other parent. Although the film then focuses on the family of four playing tennis and we realize that the child was simply describing the teams for doubles, this "us verses them" mentality is immediately apparent for the entire film and helps sum up the events that follow and the reactions involved in ways in which all children of divorce can relate. The Squid and the Whale, named after an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History is at once funny, sad, bitter, and also self-consciously pretentious and quirky-- indicative of the characters and Baumbach’s inspiration from the films of director Wes Anderson who not only served as a producer but would later collaborate on another film with him. Replacing the originally cast Bill Murray who backed out of the film after needing a break from his breakneck schedule following several shoots, Jeff Daniels gives one of his very best performances as author and creative writing professor Bernard Berkman. A once famous author who hasn’t published in years, Berkman spends his days lecturing not only his students (and flirting with one in particular played by Anna Paquin) but also his children on his theories about literature and art, along with judgments about most other individuals he finds intellectually inferior including tennis pro William Baldwin and a child psychologist who, although Yale educated, hasn’t received his PhD. Laura Linney, who originally signed on to do the film after being hand-delivered the script by Eric Stoltz (a Baumbach regular) back in 2000, remained loyal during the four years it took to get financing and she is equally riveting in her quietly powerful and emotional role as Bernard’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Joan, who reminds audiences of the winning work she did in Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me. Rounding out the superb cast are Jesse Eisenberg (Roger Dodger) and Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline) as the two boys who face not only the perils of adolescence, the struggle of sexual awakening and overactive hormones but must also come to terms with the emotional upheaval of the dissolution of their parents' marriage and power struggles concerning joint custody and property issues. Shot in just 23 days, Baumbach’s heartfelt, intensely personal movie based on his own recollections of growing up in the shadow of two successful literary parents including Village Voice critic Georgia Brown and novelist/film critic father Jonathan Baumbach, is definitely a disturbing and emotionally draining film but one that plays much better on a second viewing when one can fully appreciate the humor without squirming as much from the point-blank emotional confrontations. Squid was nominated for several awards including a nod for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes (although I would’ve classified it as a drama), a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, two from Sundance and numerous other critical and festival honors and accolades. The film is definitely worth a look for fans of Baumbach’s other work and those who enjoy Wes Anderson’s movies. Note to film buffs: not only is it disconcerting (and downright creepy) to see Jeff Daniels try to strike up a romantic rendezvous with the girl who played his daughter in Fly Away Home, (Anna Paquin), but according to IMDB, it made the shoot very uncomfortable for both actors!