Film Reviews

The Squid and the Whale Noah Baumbach

Rating - 8/10

As the opening scene unfolds in Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical tale of his own experiences during his parents' messy divorce in 1986, it is clear what we are in for from the outset. A family of four, sweating it out on the four quarters of a tennis court, intent on violently injuring each other with their forehand smash, winning being the main objective. It is the metaphor of the movie, and we end up getting enough of them. The title itself is taken from an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, consisting of a giant whale and squid fighting and ultimately devouring each other.

Shot in just 23 days, this a movie chiefly about the effects a divorce can have on its offspring, but we end up learning more about the humiliation and self-discovery of adolescence through the eyes of Baumbach. After all, this is his own detailed account of his parents' (writers Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown) acrimonious split, set in a bohemian Brooklyn neighbourhood. Father Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) is an acclaimed novelist whose career is on the wane, while Joan (Laura Linney) is the adulteress mother, struggling to balance motherhood and career whilst in the shadows of her condescending control freak of a husband. Caught up in all of this are the two impressionistic children; Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), who literally hangs on every word of his father, instilling words like "kafkaesque" into his vocabulary, and plagiarising Pink Floyd's 'Hey You' to win a school talent contest and the approval of his father. Then there's youngest Frank (Owen Kline), the semen smearing alcoholic 12 year old, discovering masturbation for the first time, jamming cashews up his nose at the dinner table, and harbouring modest dreams of being a semi-professional tennis coach, much to the dismay of his father.

Baumbach's attention to detail throughout is noticeable, (it is rumoured that he made Daniels wear some of his own father's clothes for authenticity), and we should be in no doubt that parts of what we see in the movie are based on actual events, maybe even word for word. The elements of self-unaware, acerbic humour scattered within the dialogue will please those who enjoyed his earlier (writing) effort The Life Aquatic, as well as the majority of Todd Solondz fans, and Wes Anderson (co-producer) clearly makes his idiosyncratic input, but it is the performances of the quartet of actors that illuminate the film. Jeff Daniels is at his poker faced best, managing to create an endearing character from someone with absolutely no redeeming human qualities; Laura Linney is flawless as always, one of the finest supporting actresses working today; Jesse Eisenberg improves on his growing reputation with a realistic performance full of naivety and faux-complexity, while newcomer Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) almost steals the thunder from under their noses, adding to the list of amazing child actors working at present. William Baldwin is also charming as Ivan the tennis coach, as is Anna Paquin as Lili, the awestruck nymphomaniac student of Bernard.

The humour and soundtrack (Lou Reed, The Feelies, Bert Jansch) will keep most people in their seats, but as with most films involving Wes Anderson, you will either love it or mildly resent it, mainly because of its ability to alienate its audience. Admittedly it is difficult to empathise with a bunch of ultimately pompous, narcissistic characters, squabbling away in their boho NYC life, but it has its human moments, mostly involving the uncomfortable sexual awakenings of the two children; Walt's girlfriend wiping the remnants of premature ejaculation off her bedsheets, or walking in on his father telling his own student to "put him in her mouth", and Frank rubbing himself up against a school library bookshelf, whilst gazing at a torn piece of a magazine advertisement showing semi-naked flesh of some sort. These are all cringe worthy yet vaguely familiar scenes that seem to resemble some of our own deeply repressed memories.

But don't get the wrong idea. Baumbach doesn't tend to venture into the 'rites of passage' mode too much, and it is far, far from the American Pie franchise. As all good tragi-comedies go, it has all the ingredients - no heroes, no moral, no ending, but very worthwhile.