Relentless in its condemnation of irresponsible, childish parenting, Noah Baumbach’s uncomfortable The Squid and the Whale ranks as one of 2005’s best films by pulling no punches whatsoever. It’s sharp, uncompromising, even vicious, and will make you squirm in your seat—the hot-blooded The Squid and the Whale pulsates with autobiographical fury. Set in brownstone-lined 1980’s Park Slope, Baumbach’s masterful portrait explores the Berkman family’s disintegration into a chaotic, angry mess, and the various ways that divorce can break down familial relations and civility. While professor-and-novelist Bernard (Jeff Daniels) struggles with the publishing blues (his recent experimental work has been dismissed by publishers; he in turn scorns them as morons), his wife Joan (Laura Linney) is pursuing a writing career of her own, The Squid and the Whale to the territorial Bernard’s chagrin. As their differences mount, the unhappy pair decide to separate, and break the news to their kids in a “family meeting” after school. The boys—iconoclastic ten-year old Frank (Owen Kline) and precocious teenager Walt (Jesse Eisenberg)—are shattered, their world thrown into disarray. As would be expected of two children who grew up in Jewish affluence—the Berkman’s have a beautiful home with all the trimmings, in a gorgeous neighborhood—Walt and Frank haven’t faced much adversity in their lives, and are now forced to deal with the very worst kind. As The Squid and the Whale evolves, the boys take sides, bicker with each other, and find their own ways of rebelling and expressing their pain.
The adjectives I used to describe Frank and Walt above—iconoclastic and precocious, respectively—are meaningful; post-divorce, they gravitate to the parent most likely to understand them. As the younger brother, Frank drifts towards his mother, perhaps most of all because he’s just on the cusp of puberty, and needs the pampering that only a mother can provide, even if she’s not particularly good at it—her pet name for Frank, ‘chicken,’ comes off as oddly cold whenever she says it. Serious issues such as infidelity—Joan reveals she’s had multiple, full-blown affairs after Bernard catches her with another man on the street, which Bernard is only too happy to throw in her face by sharing it with the boys—seem less catastrophic to Frank; he’s too young to understand the severity of unfaithfulness, and since he likes Joan’s new boyfriend Ivan (his tennis instructor), what’s the big deal? Meanwhile, his father speaks in rhetoric that’s way over his head and mocks Ivan for being a philistine, someone who doesn’t “like good films and books, and stuff like that.” Indeed, the only lesson that Frank seems to learn from Bernard is how spitting expletives is a great way to express your frustration. Add in that Joan is keeping their lovely brownstone—the only place that Frank has ever known as home, the only place where he feels at home—while Bernard is moving into a run-down section of Prospect Heights, and it’s evident why Frank is reluctant to leave his mother’s nest. The tagline for The Squid and the Whale, “joint custody blows,” means that he has no choice several days of the week, but his time with his father is spent sulking, running away, or bemoaning how it’s not mom’s house.
Bernard doesn’t help matters by clearly having no idea (or narcissistically not caring; interpret as you will) what his youngest son loves or needs —he puts up a poster of a tennis player that Frank hates on his bedroom ceiling, and his failed attempts at cooking are compounded by dropping the food on the dirty kitchen floor, then putting it on his sons’ plates to avoid the embarrassment of his folly (it fails; they see everything). But perhaps the most glaring example of his paternal ineptitude comes when he buys Frank a left-handed schoolhouse desk on which to do his homework—it’s not just that he doesn’t know his own child is a righty, but that he—a professor of English—deems a tiny cubby of a surface as acceptable. Indeed, Bernard constantly pleads poverty, giving him a built-in excuse for shortchanging Frank emotionally. Bernard’s relationship with Walt is built on a sturdier, if still shaky, ground, primarily because Bernard’s uppity, verbose manner actually means something to Walt. He can hear himself speak and get some sort of reaction, whereas Frank proudly—and defiantly—claims to be a philistine himself. It’s of little consequence to Frank, then, that Joan isn’t exactly mother-of-the-year: at least she makes an attempt to hide her flaws around her son, while Bernard attempts to stir them up whenever possible—Joan’s house is easily the lesser of two evils.
Regrettably, Joan isn’t a strong enough parental figure to prevent Frank from viciously fighting his parents’ separation—in fact, Frank’s subsequent actions indicate that Bernard and Joan’s mentoring couldn’t have been much worse. Attempting to grow up far too fast for his hormones and capabilities, Frank goes on a rebellious rampage. He guzzles beers, masturbates to photographs (and smears his semen in the school library, another not-so-veiled shot against his father’s wordy persona), and violently hurls a ping-pong paddle at Bernard following a bitter defeat. His potty-mouth worsens, and he disagrees with almost everything Walt says—only regarding the family cat, one of the lone remnants from the Berkman’s past happiness, is any gesture of generosity shown. And by the end of The Squid and the Whale, Frank remains a troubled child, having learned a few lessons but mostly still deeply scarred by his parents’ uncouth separation. Still, there remains hope for him—the audience never gets the impression that he’s a lost cause. Like the rest of the picture, no answers are wrapped up in tidy packages.
Walt’s admiration and respect for his father comes from a different place—at age 17, he’s mature enough to be wowed by his father’s vast pool of knowledge, yet too inexperienced to see through Bernard’s pretentious façade. Joan’s infidelity stings doubly hard, because Walt’s at that tender age where romances begin to bloom, and kids debate the merits of serious relationships versus “just playing the field.” Knowing that his mother slept around for years is difficult for Walt to rationalize, so he hones in on the self-indulgent mind—and word—games that Bernard’s playing. As such, Walt fiercely and loyally defends his father’s conduct, even when it’s painfully obvious (I emphasize painful; The Squid and the Whale can be tough to watch) that Bernard’s bloated ramblings are little more than overcompensation for his fading career, and the grip he’s losing on his life. Walt’s words cut deeper than Frank’s, because he’s able to articulately speak his mind to his parents, even if he’s flat-out wrong or obtuse in his observations.
Given the parent he’s chosen to side with (as well as his age), Walt’s rebellion takes on a unique shape. He tries to mimic his father’s flippant treatment of great authors, but as he doesn’t have the education to pull it off, he comes across looking like an attention-seeking neophyte, a theme that’s repeated throughout. Walt explains his performing Pink Floyd’s “Hey You,” at the school’s talent show (while claiming it to be an original piece) by saying that he could have written it, so it seemed immaterial that he didn’t. All of his actions stumble into this pothole of confusion regarding right and wrong—his treatment of his girlfriend, which is pretty much whatever his father suggests (“you just might want to play the field, I wish I had at your age…” Bernard *wisely* remarks); his (and Bernard’s) quirky rapport with Lili (Anna Paquin), his outwardly slutty classmate who winds up shacking up in Bernard’s new house; his fury at his mother. Baumbach’s direction is meticulous in portraying the whirlwind of emotions that Walt endures, and how much rage is pent-up beneath his weak attempts at pretension. That Jesse Eisenberg really gets inside Walt’s tormented psyche further enhances the picture, though it must be said that Owen Kline and Jeff Daniels give even better performances (no knock on Eisenberg; Daniels and Kline are simply magnificent).
That The Squid and the Whale is often darkly funny speaks volumes about our culture, as gasps and laughs frequently percolated at both screenings I attended. This is no comedy, but Baumbach’s brilliant screenplay injects true humanity into every element, and for better or worse, our society automatically responds to violence, sadness, and mistreatment with a chuckle. The Squid and the Whale sees to it that those chuckles are tinged with nervousness, a good sign that the seriousness of what Baumbach is presenting is shining through. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Squid and the Whale is that, despite all the vileness and hurt, the fact that Joan and Bernard once loved each very much comes across in spades. It’s only mentioned once, when Walt, in a poignant scene, asks his mother if she ever cared for Bernard, but the marital discord is a true disintegration, not a predetermined mismatch, something that’s often forgotten when it comes to failed marriages—there are traces of a deep love at its core, which make the separation so painful. “Did you ever even love dad?” Walt asks in the aforementioned stormy confrontation with his mom. “There was nobody like your father,” Joan replies wistfully, and I have no doubt that it was true—Noah Baumbach probably wishes that he’d gotten to see that side of his dad himself.