Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Squid and the Whale

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Noah Baumbach, 2005)

Comedy is often rooted in pain. It’s certainly true in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, which writer-director Noah Baumbach bases on the acrimonious divorce of his parents. Brooklyn intellectuals Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) decide that the time has come for their marriage to end. As smart, rational people with their boys’ best interests at heart, they work out a plan in which they will share custody and remain civil to one another. They find it’s easier said than done, as Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) find themselves taking sides in a bitter domestic war.

Like the films of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, Baumbach’s preferred milieu is the social circles of New York cognoscenti. Although his love for such places and people is palpable, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE savages the writers and professors—in this case, his parents—who are so puffed up by their selfishness and senses of self-worth that they fail to realize the harm they’re causing. In this way it's also related to the adults in Ang Lee's THE ICE STORM.

The laughs are tinged with lacerations. Daniels adeptly conveys Bernard’s tragic and comedic traits. He’s filled with self-absorption, arrogance, and contempt, qualities that show him to be ridiculous, as when he says his new home is “the fillet of the neighborhood”, and unaware of his faults.

In having Frank, the younger son, react to the divorce with extreme gestures, like smearing his semen around the school, Baumbach travels awkwardly into territory better suited to a shockmeister like Todd Solondz. He’s more comfortable showing how Walt, presumably the director’s stand-in, takes on his father’s biases in an attempt to understand the situation. A deeply personal and unsparing film, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE finds humor in the heartache and harpoons the notion that divorce has no casualties.

Grade: B

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