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Divorce, Intellectual Style

By Jeremy Mathews
The Squid and the Whale
(out of four)
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Written and Directed
by Noah Baumbach
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff
Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen
Kline, Anna Paquin, William
Baldwin and Halley Feiffer
Rated R

Walt’s English class is reading A Tale of Two Cities. He, however, has no need for the book. “It’s minor Dickens,” his father assures him. When his mother suggests that he read it anyway and make up his own mind, he replies, “I don’t want to waste my time.”

Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” depicts a teenage boy whose father has taught him what to think, but not how to think. By the time his parents declare their plans to divorce, he’s come to idolize this man so much that he can’t recognize his imperfections or see that his mother may well have a point.

Using coolly observational handheld cameras, writer/director Baumbach provides the film with a matter-of-factness that doesn’t push for laughs or emotion, but earns both. He relies solely on the dialogue and Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Walt rather than obvious exposition to communicate that the character has never actually read any of the books whose merits he praises or derides. Even when handling the character’s amusing decision to plagiarize a Pink Floyd song, the film doesn’t ridicule him. It finds the truth behind the humor.

Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play the quietly warring parents, Bernard and Joan Berkman, who are based, to some degree or another, depending whom you ask, on Baumbach’s own parents, both of whom are members of the literary community. Bernard is an esteemed writer and college professor who has hit a slump and can’t find a publisher for his new book. Joan, on the other hand, has recently started writing, and is already receiving attention from The New Yorker magazine and other publishers.

Daniels gives one of his best performances as the washed-up college professor who wants everyone to pity him and feel inferior to him at the same time. In the tennis match that opens the film, he tells Walt to attack his wife’s weak backhand, and this competitive streak runs through all aspects of his life. He can’t even accept that his kid’s tennis instructor might play better than he can, let alone admit the truth about his dwindling career.

He’s crippled his son’s perception of women, which teenagedom had already confused enough. Walt is ashamed of his girlfriend Sophie (Halley Feiffer), constantly preparing his father with the information that she’s not that pretty. It only gets worse when Bernard invites his student, Lili (Anna Paquin), to stay at the house—after Walt has heard her short stories about her vagina.

Walt doesn’t see his mother as the perfect human that his father embodies, and insists to his 10-year-old brother, Frank (Owen Kline), that dad’s the real writer. Frank, however, goes a different direction from Walt’s father-worship, engaging in a combination of bitterness and a desire for attention by taking up drinking beer. He looks up to his tennis teacher, Ivan (William Baldwin), a jolly former pro whose career wasn’t successful enough to establish himself as an artful player worthy of Bernard’s respect. Frank has also taken to breaking public masturbation decorum, wiping his semen on the school’s walls and bookshelves.

The brothers are supposed to switch houses every other day, but Walt soon refuses to stay at his mother’s house, after news of an affair slips out—and it slips out in the same way classified information is accidently leaked, followed by a deadpan “I thought you knew” from Bernard after he drops the bomb.

While Bernard doesn’t come across as a very good person or father, the film isn’t out to pass judgement so much as observe the pain that comes with a divorce. The two brothers provide alternate examples of how young people deal with the news. Baumbach perfectly captures that moment in adolescence where you realize that you don’t actually know anything you thought you did. Walt’s mother isn’t the whore he would like to paint her as, and his father isn’t the great man with no flaws whom he envisioned while growing up, and now he has to accept it. Maybe one day, he’ll grow up to be a thoughtful filmmaker.

jeremy [at]


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