Few films, if any, have managed to encapsulate the fragility and necessity for human relationships better than Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. Martin Carr reviews one of the best films of the 2000s…
Written ten years after his debut Kicking and Screaming, this Oscar nominated second feature from writer-director Noah Baumbach is an open wound of a movie centred on familial disruption and divorce. Baumbach, who went onto write and direct Greenberg and While We’re Young, both with Ben Stiller, draws from personal experience of a family falling apart. Featuring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and William Baldwin, The Squid and The Whale is savagely honest, tellingly real and now a firm favourite. In my opinion only Annie Hall has managed to encapsulate the fragility and necessity for human relationships better.
Daniels and Linney excel as a couple who reach the end of their emotional cul-de-sac, if I might quote Tom Waits momentarily. Daniels as Bernhard Berkman is the epitome of intellectualised detachment, at odds with his wife and her burgeoning success as a writer and blaming his lack of commercial notoriety as the sole reason for the marriage breakdown. Linney matches Daniels as Joan who has stayed in things for the children, painfully aware they have been deteriorating for much longer. William Baldwin, who somehow missed out on Oscar nominations that year, tag teams between Daniels and Linney.
However, where the film most successfully hits upon exposed nerves is in the depiction of their children’s emotional state. Eisenberg’s Frank places Bernhard on a pedestal whilst spewing vitriol upon his mother, perpetually perceived as the scarlet woman in the equation. Whereas Owen Kline’s Frank internalises his anger manifesting it through misbehaviour at school, masturbation in libraries and a hike in the level of bad language. That the view of their parents imperceptibly changes more than once across the film, is down to the uniqueness and insight of Baumbach’s writing.
Those intentionally autobiographical elements shine through in the stinging dialogue, uncomfortable reality and overwhelming sense of first-hand experience. That Daniels, Linney, Baldwin and Eisenberg are able to make these people likable, even human, is yet another reason why The Squid and The Whale is an essential purchase. There is no over egged melodrama just bare bones reality with a left of centre feel, which comes through in the characters. Which in turn foreshadows Baumbach’s collaborations with Wes Anderson, himself a producer on the film.
To a certain extent you could also make comparisons with Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, itself about family disruptions, unfulfilled creativity and unresolved professional aspirations. A film criminally overlooked in a similar fashion and anchored by Michael Douglas and Frances McDormand in Oscar worthy performances, alongside the comeback kid Robert Downey Jr. Both films have a bohemian feel and live or die through the writing. Rarely do you start talking about one film and segue into another, only to end up recommending both. But this is where we find ourselves with The Squid and The Whale and Wonder Boys on the same wish list. But here is a nickels worth of free advice; if I owned only two films in the world these would be mine.
Written by Martin Carr
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Anna Paquin
Released: 2005 / Genre: Comedy-Drama
Country: USA / IMDB
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Top 10 Films reviewed The Squid and the Whale on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion. The film was released on Blu-ray December 5, 2016.