A Family Adrift

Writer and director Noah Baumbach has made three light films — one so slight (1997’s party-hopping Highball), it didn’t see release until five years after its completion, and even then it snuck onto video-store shelves credited to a pseudonymous writer and director. None of his previous work — not even his co-writing credit with Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou — suggested that Baumbach had within him something as treacherously funny and wrenchingly sad as The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach’s parents’ divorce serves as the basis for this movie, which is a joy to behold until it becomes almost too painful to bear.

It begins as one would expect from the Brooklyn-bred son of a novelist (the equally unflinching and frank Jonathan Baumbach) and a film critic (The Village Voice‘s wonderful Georgia Brown): dry and wry, wearing its mean-spiritedness with a crooked smile. A family is playing tennis. On one side of the court stand a handsome mother named Joan and her youngest son, Frank; on the other is a bearded father named Bernard and his other boy, a gangly teenager named Walt. “Mom and me versus you and dad,” says 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), a little boy forced into adulthood by parents who act like children. What follows is nothing short of a war.

The marriage of Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) has been floundering for months, if not years. Joan loathes Bernard, a once-successful novelist now resting on crumbling laurels as a professor, because of his pretensions, his distance, his ennui. Bernard loathes Joan for her ambitions, her desire to become a writer when he’s the writer in the family. Bernard is too pompous to let his marriage end, too afraid to actually allow anyone to recognize he’s a failure at one thing, lest he be discovered a failure at everything. But even he owns up to the inevitable: He and Joan split and use the children as battering rams to tear each other down.

Baumbach is clearly meant to be represented here by 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg); the movie is set in 1986, when he would have been that age. One need not know this to be enveloped by this sad, comic tale, though certainly it has that sting of a tale too personal to be manufactured. What’s most significant about its autobiography is Baumbach’s willingness to portray Walt as a fuck-up as shallow as his old man. Walt claims his father’s thunderously pompous opinions as his own (about the “minor works” of Dickens, say) and insists that Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” is his original composition during a talent show, and he keeps a cruel distance from his first true love, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), dismissing her as unworthy of his affections. He’s his father’s son in every respect — callow, cynical, even mean.

The Squid and the Whale is one of those remarkable movies that erects no barrier between filmmaker and audience; it’s a movie about intellectuals that’s all heart. It makes no excuses and offers no apologies, and not once does Baumbach ask for your sympathy, just your attention for 90 minutes — which you’re happy to spare.

Categories: Movies