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The Squid and the Whale

A movie directed by Noah Baumbach

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Together We Stand; Divided We Fall? The Squid and the Whale

  • Nov 14, 2005
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 son at ping-pong. A pretentious writer and college professor, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) can tolerate the company of intellectuals, but he refers to most of the population as “philistines.”

Ironically, Bernard’s insult could be used against himself as he fits the second definition of philistine — he has no clue how to be an effective parent or husband.

Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film opens with a scene of what should be a friendly, family tennis match with father and elder son on one side and mother and younger son on the other. Instead, Bernard puts full force into his ground strokes, swears when he hits a serve into the net, and instructs Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) to take advantage of his mother’s “weak backhand.”

It’s Brooklyn in 1986 and the Berkmans are in the midst of a divorce. In a futile attempt to maintain fairness, Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard set up a complicated joint-custody schedule for their sons, 16-year-old Walt and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline). However, as one of Walt’s friends points out, “joint custody blows,” and Bernard doesn’t make things any easier as he bad-mouths Joan and constantly complains about trying to find parking spaces when he picks the boys up.

Immature and bitterly competitive, Bernard tries to pit his sons against his wife. The tennis match mirrors the Berkman’s real-life teams. Suffering from a bit of an Oedipus complex, Frank always defends his mother and longs to be like his mother’s boyfriend Ivan (Billy Baldwin), a tennis pro and “philistine.”

Walt, on the other hand, desperately tries to please his father, following him to classes and lectures and repeating his snobbish literary commentary. When Walt’s girlfriend tells him that she likes the ending of The Metamorphosis, Walt comments that it’s “Kafka-esque,” and he dismisses a non-Gatsby novel as “minor Fitzgerald.” Quoting his father all the time, Walt seems unable to form his own ideas. Walt even goes so far as to claim that Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own in an effort to impress his father. Since Bernard is trapped in his writer’s bubble, he doesn’t know the difference.

Bernard’s criticisms ruin Walt’s enjoyment of everything from A Tale of Two Cities to his relationship with Sophie. He tells Walt that Sophie is a good starter girlfriend but that he should play the field and try to find someone better.

While the Berkmans pretend that the joint-custody agreement is in the boys’ best interest, it turns into a power struggle between husband and wife with the boys getting lost in the shuffle. Bernard doesn’t seem to care how his actions affect anyone else, and Joan is a formerly good mother who has discovered her own literary success and is enjoying a bit of a revolution. Walt longs to be recognized as talented while Frank acts out by swearing, drinking beer, and behaving obscenely at school — and no one seems to notice.

Produced by Wes Anderson, The Squid and the Whale shares some of the characteristics of The Royal Tenenbaums as they both feature dysfunctional New York families headed by egotistical fathers. However, the characters in The Squid and the Whale rang truer to life for me as they show emotion without being melodramatic. Yes, there’s something to be said for subtlety, but no one is as emotionally one-dimensional as Margot Tenenbaum.

The acting in The Squid and the Whale, especially that of young Owen Kline, is phenomenal. Laura Linney is always brilliant, and it’s probably Jeff Daniels’ best performance ever. Even the supporting cast manages to be quirky without seeming ridiculous. Anna Paquin spices up the movie as Lili, an over-sexed grad student who creepily comes on to Bernard.

I found the abrupt ending somewhat unsatisfying, and it’s hard to believe that seemingly hip parents wouldn’t recognize a Pink Floyd song as plagiarized, but, overall, The Squid and the Whale features a good balance of bitterness and self-discovery. The over-arching mood of the film is that of nostalgia rather than resentment. Baumbach isn’t trying to show us how traumatizing his adolescence was; he clearly loves his parents and the characters on which they are based. Even if his upbringing wasn’t ideal, those striped tube socks sure were awesome.

Final rating: 4.5 stars


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More The Squid and the Whale reviews
review by . October 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
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 …
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 …
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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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