Monday, October 31, 2011

Another Awkward Family Falling Apart: The Squid And The Whale Is Troubling And Real.

The Good: Great dialogue, Good acting, Good direction.
The Bad: Predictable plot points.
The Basics: Very difficult and true, The Squid And The Whale is less esoteric and more of an increasingly common experience as a family moves toward divorce.

The modern family, with its complexities has been the source of fodder for movies . . . pretty much forever. I think the angsty family reached its critical peak with Kramer Vs. Kramer (reviewed here!). Lately, it seems the movies about families I enjoy most are the ones that focus on eccentric families, like The Royal Tenenbaums (reviewed here!). After accidentally subjecting my wife to The Other Woman (reviewed here!), we were out and she saw the DVD for The Squid And The Whale and thought that we might enjoy that film more.

The Squid And The Whale is a surprisingly stark film about people and the awkwardness of relationships. There is a surprising number of references to semen and the sexual elements alternate between the utterly creepy (the youngest child wiping ejaculate on the locker of a girl he likes), the stiflingly realistic (the teenage child cumming remarkably quickly when his girlfriend first tries to touch him) and the completely predictable (a student coming on to the father). Despite the moments of predictability and awkwardness, The Squid And The Whale is enjoyable and captures a sense of reality that those who have gone through an awkward divorce are destined to recognize as true.

Starting with a tennis match wherein Bernard and Walt take on Joan and Frank, the Berkman family is in the process of torquing apart. In 1986 Brooklyn, Bernard and Joan are having a difficult time raising Walt and Frank. When Joan is published in a literary journal, Bernard's jealousy begins to rear up. It is not long before Bernard and Joan separate and are moving toward divorce very rapidly. Joan begins dividing the family by hiding books she claims are hers and Bernard has Walt steal books back for him.

The family is pretty much doomed the moment Bernard tells Walt that the marriage was dead when Joan had an affair with a shrink named Richard and some other men. Frank begins to assert himself by claiming he wants to be a tennis pro and Bernard continues to find it difficult to get his next work published. While Joan uses the separation to grow and experiment, Bernard becomes more mired in his patterns and the family seems to get further from the potential of staying together.

The Squid And The Whale very realistically captures the angst of a family in the process of a divorce. Many of the characters are awkward and troubled. Frank, the youngest of the family, swears the most and he is the one most curious about what explicit sexual acts his mom might have done with the men she had affairs with. The film is abrupt and troubling in many portions, especially when Frank masturbates in the library and calls his mother ugly. He begins to drink and discovers his budding sexuality on his own, which causes more problems at school.

Walt, like Frank, is awkward, though his relationship issues are much more common. He feels pressure based on how he tries to live up to his father's intellectual pretenses. Walt is trying to live up to his father's expectations, but in the process he skates by without actually developing. One of the most interesting aspects of the writing of The Squid And The Whale is how writer and director Noah Baumbach takes time to develop the ideas without making them painfully explicit. So, for example, Walt listens to his father's opinions on the great books and movies and as a result, he seldom actually reads the masters. This is heavily implied when his girlfriend, Sophie, asks him a specific question about Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which he glosses over. The writing for The Squid And The Whale is excellent.

In addition to being an interesting character, the angst-filled Walt is masterfully played by a young Jesse Eisenberg. Sure, he's still young now, but even in The Squid And The Whale he illustrates a strong talent and the ability to deliver complex lines. He has wonderfully expressive facial expressions and he delivers with an understated way that helps maintain the reality of the character. It is easy to see how Jess Eisenberg had a meteoric rise following this film and he plays off Anna Paquin well in her few scenes with him as Lily.

The surprise for me was how good Jeff Bridges was in The Squid And The Whale. Usually, I would champion Laura Linney, but as Joan she is woefully underused. Bridges, on the other hand, is stunningly good as the pretentious Bernard. With his overgrown beard and mustache, Bridges immediately sets himself apart from every other role he has taken. Instead, Bridges plays Bernard as both erudite and pretentious. Bernard is a complex character who is both metaconscious and annoyingly unethical, which Bridges is able to play that with his body language. In one key scene, he makes his eyes look more lazy and tired and that sells the sense of emotional fatigue his character has.

The Squid And The Whale is not for everyone. As my wife noted at the end, "I hate independent films!" there is little sense of resolution to the film. Instead, Baumbach opts for a slice of life wherein the characters are put into problematic situations, the situations are brought to the attention of the others and then nothing happens as a consequence. That can be irksome for those who want a real strong story, but for those looking for a movie with both odd characters and the problematic realism that independent films often embody, The Squid And The Whale delivers.

For other works with Anna Paquin, be sure to check out my reviews of:
True Blood - Season Three
True Blood - Season Two
True Blood - Season One
X-Men: The Last Stand
X-2: X-Men United
The Piano


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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