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The Squid and the Whale

A movie directed by Noah Baumbach

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The Squid and the Whale -- to quote a character "Difficult"

  • Oct 13, 2010

The Squid and the Whale is an ensemble piece whose main adjective is spoken by Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels): difficult.

The marriage between Bernard and Joan (Laura Linney) disintegrates. Common enough. What is uncommon is that both of them have Ph. D.’s in Literature, so, if nothing else, it’s pretty obvious that the language of the broken dynamic will be . . . difficult. The victims (and they are victims) are the two boys: Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). The parents share joint custody. By itself, this is perhaps common but no less confusing, but since each child identifies with a different parent, it increases the tension. Walt quite literally mimics his father where he can. Frank doesn’t identify with anyone, but is going through serious sexual growth with no assistance or education. Bernard and Joan are wrapped up in themselves but not to the extent that they ignore the boys, but it does mean that they don’t pay close enough attention to either. This becomes evident when they have to attend teacher conferences for both boys (Frank smears semen around his school; Walt plagiarizes a song he plays at a talent contest and has stopped doing school work altogether).

The movie works, oddly because the characters are basically unlikeable. Bernard has no trait to like. Joan is insensitive. Walt tries to face fears he doesn’t understand—which is why he mimics his father; at least that way he had a personality he can control. Frank is having an existential crisis at the beginning of puberty. The Squid and the Whale is honest. Too many films would focus on a wronged character but all characters in the film are wronged. And all of the characters, of course, do the wronging, too.

The film is extremely emotional and its short 75 minutes are enough—much longer and either the intensity would fade or become too much to handle. The intensity grows from the way the Berkmans either avoid their fears and failings or try in haphazard ways to face them. I used the hackneyed term, honest, so I may as well fall on my sword and use the word human. The Berkmans are human and to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, it is embarrassing to be human.

All performances are top shelf. I watched it specifically for Laura Linney (who almost never fails in my opinion), but everyone else does a great job acting and reacting. Owen Kline was particularly good given the caliber of actors he had to stand toe to toe with. Auteur Noah Baumbach either got very lucky or was able to pull these performances from the cast.

Due to the type of film, it is no easy task to recommend it. As I said, the film is only 75 minutes long and I think any review would be short due to this—unless you want to do a close analysis of each relationship. If you like any of the actors or you don’t mind lengthy tension I imagine The Squid and the Whale will be one you remember for a while. If none of this is true, it is probably best to find a different film.


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More The Squid and the Whale reviews
review by . January 02, 2009
Bernard (Jeff Daniels) was once a successful novelist; now he's a stuffy, patronizing college professor. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) has been learning to write and has just published her first novel. And she's been having multiple love affairs for years. The two separate and the battle over the kids begins. Big brother Walt idolizes his father and hates his mother, but mostly just wants a girlfriend. 12-year old Frank sides with Mom and has some major problems of his own.     This …
review by . April 22, 2006
Freedom is loved and desired. However, in "The Squid and the Whale," freedom is showcased with a family where everyone is doing (mostly) what he or she wants, and everyone is miserable. Reeling on separation and an inevitable divorce, the father (Jeff Daniels) and the mother (Laura Linney) are writers. (The father's work is waning, so he works as a professor.) In this household, the separation leaves two boys, an older adolescent, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and a coming-of-age adolescent, Frank (Owen …
review by . March 23, 2006
Noah Baumbach makes an impressive debut as writer/director of his autobiographical story THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. It is a piece of life sliced out of the 1980s that is just as pertinent to today's culture as it was to the period piece Baumbach resurrects.    Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) is a shell of a being, a once famous writer who is now living as an unctuous teacher while his wife Joan (Laura Linney) is rising in fame as a novelist. Their marriage is obviously tired: 17 …
review by . January 05, 2006
posted in Movie Hype
"The Squid and the Whale" is a movie that shows us something we'd rather not see: The ugly side of divorce. I've always been fascinated with the way Hollywood portrays divorce. They never really portray it as something that is truly horrible, just as a "touch luck/too bad" thing that happens to many people. In other words, divorce is a part of human nature, and you might as well get used to it. Of course, people who have been effected by divorce will tell you otherwise. The fact that so many divorcees …
review by . November 14, 2005
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: acting, humor, realism, characters     Cons: a couple of unrealistic details     The Bottom Line: "Joint custody blows."      Philistine: 1. A smug, ignorant, especially middle-class person who is regarded as being indifferent or antagonistic to artistic and cultural values.    2. One who lacks knowledge in a specific area.         Bernard Berkman is the kind of man who tries to beat his 12-year-old …
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The Squid and the Whalefollows the divorce of Joan (Laura Linney,You Can Count on Me) and Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels,The Purple Rose of Cairo) as it wreaks havoc on the emotional lives of their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg,Roger Dodger) and Frank (Owen Kline,The Anniversary Party). Though there's no plot in the usual sense, the movie progresses with growing emotional force from the separation into the bitter fighting between Joan and Bernard and the hapless, floundering behavior of Walt and Frank, who act out through plagiarism, sexual acts, and drinking. Some viewers may find the ending too diffuse; others will appreciate that writer/director Noah Baumbach (Mr. Jealousy) doesn't wrap up the messiness of life in a false cinematic package. Either way, viewers will appreciate how the specificity of the personalities makesThe Squid and the Whaleso compelling, as Baumbach has drawn the characters with such detail, both engaging and off-putting, that they leap off the screen. Naturally, he's greatly helped by the cast: Linney, Eisenberg, Kline, and especially Daniels bite into these often unsympathetic portraits and give fearlessly honest performances, interlocked in both painful and funny ways--rarely have family dynamics been captured so vividly. If there was an ensemble Oscar, this cast would deserve it.--Bret Fetzer
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Director: Noah Baumbach
Genre: Drama
Release Date: October 5, 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Noah Baumbach
DVD Release Date: March 21, 2006
Runtime: 81 minutes
Studio: Sony Pictures
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