A Whale of a tale
Review: The Squid and the Whale
|Jesse Eisnberg and Jeff Daniels hit the court.|
Another of the year's best screenplays, The Squid and the Whale
says as much about divorce as Crash did about racism. Written
and directed by Noah Baumbach (co-writer of The Life Aquatic with Steve
Zissou), it's too detailed and deeply felt not to be autobiographical.
The setting, Brooklyn 1986, also makes it seem specific.
It quickly becomes obvious that Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and his
wife Joan (Laura Linney) are not getting along. Part of the problem may
be the Star Is Born syndrome: he hasn't had a book published in years
while a demand is building for her writing.
Their children, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg of The Village), who's maybe 16,
and Frank (Owen Kline of The Anniversary Party), about 12, ignore the
trouble as long as they can; but one day their parents sit them down after
school for a "family conference" to announce they're separating
after 17 years of marriage. They've worked out a joint custody agreement
("She has tennis and winter clothes; I get sneakers and camp")
they can live with and the boys will have to.
Bernard claims Joan is writing her maiden name in books she wants to keep
to avoid disputes later. The film is rich in such detail.
"Don't most of your friends have divorced parents?" Joan consoles.
"Well, now you do too."
"Joint custody blows," Walt's best friend tells him.
Walt sides with his father, especially after learning his mother has
been having affairs for years, and refuses to stay at Joan's house, even
though Bernard's new dwelling is a fixer-upper he doesn't fix up. Frank
is closer to his mother but acts out in school. He curses all the time
and, having just started masturbating, leaves his seed all over the building.
For a school talent show Walt sings a Pink Floyd song, claiming it as
his own. When busted he shows he's inherited his father's ability to rationalize:
"I felt I could have written it so the fact that it was already written
was more or less a technicality."
Walt finds a girlfriend, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), who looks oddly like
his mother, even though Bernard says she's "not the type I go for."
That's lucky because when he moves Lili (Anna Paquin), a female student
who is his type, into the house, it starts an undeclared competition between
father and son.
Joan, meanwhile, is having an affair with Ivan (William Baldwin), the
sleazy tennis pro who calls the boys "brotha." (Their mother
calls them "Chicken" and "Pickle.")
Baumbach's script captures the complex, often conflicting emotions of
each family member, including the residual love the parents feel for each
other that sometimes threatens to lead to reconciliation, and the question
of when Walt will lose his virginity and with whom. While Walt's closer
to his father now, his happiest early memories involve his mother.
One of those memories is of a trip to the Natural History Museum where
young Walt was frightened by a huge display of a battle between a squid
and a whale, a wonderful metaphor for the fighting he would later witness
between his parents.
Many will wish they had written The Squid and the Whale and some
will doubtless try, but Noah Baumbach wins on a technicality.
Steve Warren is a local actor and film reviewer. His reviews can also be seen weekly in the Sunday Paper.