The Squid and the Whale (2006) | Criterion UK bluray release

December 1st, 2016
Author: Meredith Taylor

Writer|Dir: Noah Baumbach | Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline

Baumbach offers a wincingly painful black comedy that will resonate with us for its poignance and human truth. Based on his own experiences of his parents’ divorce, this subtle character-led drama bears all the thorns of traumatic breakdown where each party is left emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives, and particularly those who are innocent and free from negative baggage are now laden down with it.

Set in brownstone Brooklyn, New York City, during the 1980s there are echoes of Woody Allen films of the era, and Simon and Garfunkle tunes. This is a place of traditional values and literary underpinnings. May be it still is like this.

Jeff Daniels plays arrogant intellectual Bernard Berkman: a man who looks older than his years but whose books are no longer paying the family bills. His bluestocking hippyish wife Joan (Laura Linney) has been biding her time in waiting to leave him for years but, emboldened by her recent literary success, has found this the time to spread her wings – unfortunately in the direction of her youngest son Frank’s tennis coach Ivan (a smug Alec Baldwin).

The couple’s elder son is Walt is played by a febrile and outwardly cocky Jesse Eisenberg who has attempted to master his father’s intellectual confidence (erroneously referring to Kafka’s own works as Kafkaesque) but is still just an awkward and vulnerable 16-year-old virgin. Walt is close to his father whereas Frank (Owen Kline) sides with his mother, and is even more wet behind the ears, although spiky and truculent as he struggles with puberty.

After a vicious confrontation over writing issues, Joan and Bernard decide to part and organise joint custody of the kids in an unfeasible ‘every other night’ arrangement. Into the equation comes Bernard’s student Lili (Anna Paguin) who he unwisely invites to share his new home ‘across the park’ with Walt becoming a more regular over-night visitor than Frank. This pits man against boy on the flirting stakes and Bernard naturally pulls rank.

Daniels and Linney are both superb at evoking creative insecurity and how it impacts on the boys’ need for security and moral grounding at their delicate stage development. Clinging to both parents and then erupting violently and distancing themselves, the two manage to convey the hurt and bristling anger of incertitude and impending separation.

On the tennis court Bernard tramples on his younger son’s pride in his game, mercilessly thrashing him and admitting to ‘allowing him to win’ when he is himself defeated. The injured party in the marriage breakdown, Bernard also leaks inexcusable intimacies about his and Joan’s love life – seeking to get the boys on his side, with disastrous consequences for all concerned. Bernard is a wincing study of diminished masculinity, due to romantic and financial failure, and this brings out the worst in him as he is well aware of the shamefulness of his behaviour. The scene where he actually accepts Walt’s girlfriend’s contribution at the end of their joint restaurant meal nails humiliation to perfection.

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE is a joy to watch as we wallow deliciously in its unalloyed misery with each scene revealing more exquisite emotional torture. Totally devoid of American cheesiness, this is about the pare-down simplicity of the bare-boned truth. As bracingly refreshing a slap on the face with a frozen cod. MT


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