As painful a study (and it is a study) of divorce and it’s repurcussions as is likely to ever be depicted on screen. Streaked with a humour as black as a crow’s wing, dialogue delivered with forked tongues and a skewering of machismo that’s papercut sharp and uncomfortable. The Squid and the Whale is Noah Baumbach’s second directorial effort after 1995’s Kicking and Screaming (worst synopsis line on IMDB ever by the way). In between he wrote scripts for and with Wes Anderson, the stand out being the almost folklorey The Royal Tenenbaums which almost pre-resembles this film. The acting style, dialogue delivery and middle class, New York, brownstone setting make them comfortable bedfellows.
Maybe it only feels very similar to The Royal Tenenbaums because there was so much of Baumbach invested in that script. Wes Anderson just supplied the whimsy and the visual style. Striking out on his own appears to have allowed Baumbach to go to a darker, more emotionally visceral place. If it’s semi autobiographical as mooted then it’s observations cut like a knife (more deeply for the writer one would imagine) and resonate with a truth rarely found in American cinema.
Here, Jeff Daniels (never better) plays the patriarch, forced to move out of his family’s brownstone when his seventeen years of marriage collapses. Sharing custody of the two children in an overly bureaucratic manner (every other night and alternate Thursdays) with his ex wife (Laura Linney, when hasn’t she been good?) puts an extra strain on him and he begins to descend further into despair. Both Daniel’s character and his portrayal of him are superb. He’s a writer who’s market has dried up whilst his wife’s burgeoning literary career is on the rise, whether this led to the divorce or if it was his wife’s string of affairs is often discussed, loudly. The wounded pride and over compensatory machismo that Daniels displays is totally believable, he’s a member of the intelligentsia without an audience, likening himself to Kafka and operating within a bubble of such delusions of grandeur it’s a choice between laughing or squirming (frequently both).
Frank and Walt are the kids stuck between two houses in Brooklyn. Frank is the younger and takes from his mother, emotionally and mentally. Walt is the older, trying to follow in his father’s faux intellectual footsteps and lose his virginity at the same time. Frank responds to the divorce by developing a taste for beer and masturbation whilst Walt seems to take it in his stride initially. Walt is played with astonishing verve by Jesse Eisenberg (playing a character who could easily go on to play the character of, say, the founder of facebook). He almost acts with his brain here, you can see him working out each situation and how to play it right there on the screen, full of adolescent nerves and heartbreaking honesty it’ll be whether Hollywood can find enough roles for him and not the other way round. The kid’s fallout from the divorce is both conventional (falling grades, broken relationships, picking favourites) and unusual (stealing Pink Floyd lyrics to win a talent contest, smearing semen on girl’s lockers). The two young actors play their roles fearlessly, perfectly encapsulating lost innocence and a kind of wide eyed misunderstanding of the world.
By the end, after all the sleeping with students and tennis coaches, the penny pinching, back biting and one upmanship, the alcohol, the arguments and the sheer pettiness on display. There just remains a deep feeling of sadness that this is how all families end up, at least families in Baumbach’s world. Oh, and it’s set in the eighties too.