January 20, 2006

The Squid and the Whale

Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale is an odd little film. On one hand it openly mocks the artsy fartsy types that thumb their noses at anything mainstream. There is a great little moment where Bernard, Jeff Daniels' character, declares that his ex-wife's new lover is a philistine. What is a philistine, the younger son, Frank, asks. Bernard explains that while he himself is someone "who enjoys books and interesting movies," a philistine is someone who doesn't. Frank thinks it over for a minute, then decides that under his father's criteria he must be a philistine too. The movie is full of moments that deflate yuppie self-importance like that.
Yet at the same time, Baumbach revels in utilizing a stripped down version of Wes Anderson's quirky cinematic language. In many ways, this is an artsy-fartsy film. It's not impenetrable the way David Lynch's work — which makes a brief cameo — is; indeed, it's not even as frustrating as Rushmore, which Baumbach co-wrote. But the way it's shot, the way it's edited, even the rhythm of the dialog shuns our traditional mainstream expectations. Thinking it over, I can only conclude that in order to tell the story of New York City liberal-intellectuals, you need to speak their language.
If this film were a donut (or, since it's New York City, I suppose a bagel) the hollow empty centre would be Bernard. Jeff Daniels tackles the character with total dedication. From the first frame to the last, he never once betrays that there might be a worthwhile, caring human being under all of that pompous self-importance. The last scene he has with Anna Paquin's character Lili, for instance, is especially revolting when you consider he once played her father in 1996's Fly Away Home. But more about that later.
Bernard is the fading patriarch of the Berkman clan, one of the few surviving nuclear families in the two children's school. That changes when Bernard spots his wife Joan (Laura Linney, bringing everything I love and hate about her to the role) involved with another man. The affairs have, it seems, been ongoing for four years. The split tears the family apart, with each boy reacting in an entirely different way.
Frank, being the more perceptive and emotional aware of the two, turns to alcohol at home and masturbation in public. His older brother Walt is so desperately devoted to his vision of Bernard that he takes up many — though importantly not all — of his father's crucial failings.
The turmoil escalates to such an extent that I was convinced I was watching the darkly comic tale of how one man's unstoppable ego can destroy a family. Thankfully, events take a more hopeful turn. True, there is some perverse pleasure in watching Bernard and Walt get their come-uppance. The choreography of their downfall reminded me of the wonderfully constructed gags in The Family Stone, though without quite the depth or the density. But unlike contemptible movies like The Weather Man, Walt's misery serves a purpose. When the empty highbrow veneer he has so dutifully crafted is finally penetrated, the sensitive and honest soul underneath proves to be surprisingly winsome. The childhood memory he unearthed was something I could relate to. It put all of the earlier childhood misery into a context that made sense.
Walt's self-discovery in the final act put Bernard's lack of depth into an even sharper focus. When that revolting scene I mentioned earlier finally arrives, where it is strongly implied that Bernard is forcing himself sexually on college student Lili, Walt walks in on it. Still backed against the wall, Lili shares a glance with Walt that knows things Bernard will never understand. When we leave Bernard at the end, he is as narcissistic as he was when we met him. But I was okay with that, because Walt has been spared a similar fate.
The Squid and the Whale is too rooted in reality to have the surreal joy The Royal Tenenbaums. Bernard has most of Royal's wit but none of his charm, and his non-arc isn't as emotionally grabbing as Royal's turn-around and ultimate redemption. That other movie is without question the better experience; but this is the more honest of the two, with truths both painful and all too real. ()


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