Joint custody blows.
You don’t have to be told that Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is semi-autobiographical to know that it’s true. There are intimate moments so deeply uncomfortable that you feel they almost have to be pulled directly from a person’s memories, and lines that cut so deep you’re almost certain that the writer has been on the receiving end of them. It’s a film so persuasive that it makes you squirm in your seat, but also a film so brutally funny that you may occasionally fall out of it.
The year is 1986, and the Berkman family is falling apart at the seams. Esteemed author and teacher Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels, Gettysburg) and his wife Joan (Laura Linney, Mr. Holmes) have decided to divorce. The fact that Joan has been having an affair is part of it, but Bernard has known about that for years. What really seems to bother him is that she has just begun publishing her own work to considerable acclaim. Bernard has always been the literary superstar of the family, but his productivity as a writer has declined in recent years.
The news of the divorce is difficult for the children to process. 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network) – an aspiring intellectual who idolizes his father – quickly places all of the blame on Joan, insisting that her selfishness and foolish ambition has torn the family apart. 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) is more resentful of his father, and seems far moodier when he’s forced to stay at Bernard’s new home (a evenly-divided joint custody agreement has been worked out).
The Berkmans don’t really resemble your average American family, but rather belong to a subsection of upper-class cultural elites that pride themselves on having good taste in all things. To be more accurate: Bernard is a member of this group, and everyone else in the family seems to be shaped by his influence to some degree (in some cases this means becoming more like him, and it others it means running in the opposite direction).
Walt feels particularly pressured to live up to his father’s expectations, and is so eager to keep up intellectually that he accepts his father’s commentary on art as indisputable truth rather than attempting to actually examine it for himself. In one scene, Bernard casually dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “lesser Dickens,” and Joan insists that Walt should read it and form his own opinion. “I wouldn’t want to waste my time,” Walt replies. Essentially, he is becoming the sort of person who can extensively quote reviews of everything but can’t actually speak from first-hand experience (this leads to some painfully amusing moments, such as when Walt attempts to fake having read The Metamorphosis by calling it, “very Kafka-esque”).
All of the characters are sharply drawn (including a down-to-earth teenage girl played by Halley Feiffer, an artistically ambitious college student played by Anna Paquin and a jock-ish tennis instructor played by William Baldwin), but it quickly becomes clear that this is fundamentally the story of Walt’s path to his own identity. It’s not the path of most teenagers, but it’s filled with the embarrassing moments, defining mistakes and crucial moments of discovery that mark most journeys to adulthood. You can see where the arc is headed well before it gets there, but the film is so sharp and observant that the predictability hardly matters.
Baumbach is one of those filmmakers who is often seen as a writer first and a director second, and that’s understandable: the acidic poetry of his dialogue leaves a much bigger impression than his work behind the camera. Still, the film’s grainy 16mm cinematography and penchant for close-ups adds a nice “home movie” vibe to the proceedings that suits the material nicely, and the lean running time (a quick 81 minutes) ensures that the movie packs a real punch (too much contemplative narrative fat is the downfall of so many coming-of-age films).
While Baumbach is often merciless in the way he underlines the self-satisfied superiority of the Berkman clan, he never lets his characters turn into cartoons. Bernard may have the markings of a stereotype (the smug intellectual who lusts after his students, sighs about cultural “philistines” and regards the greatest literary minds of the past as his direct predecessors), but he’s written and played with such precision (this is one of Daniels’ finest turns) that he never feels like one.
The Squid and the Whale (Blu-ray) Criterion offers an exceptional 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. The image is very warm and grainy, but benefits from exceptional detail and depth. It’s a huge step up from the shoddy, cheap transfer Mill Creek served up a few years ago. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is stellar, too, though this is largely a dialogue-driven film with fairly minimal sound design. Supplements include new interviews with Baumbach, Daniels, Linney, Eisenberg and Kline, a conversation on the film’s score between Baumbach and composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, a 2005 documentary on the making of the film, audition footage, trailers and a booklet featuring an essay by Kent Jones.
The Squid and the Whale is one of Baumbach’s signature films; a smart, funny and painfully insightful coming-of-age comedy anchored by terrific performances. Criterion’s Blu-ray release is excellent.