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Noah Baumbach takes a loving (oh?) stab at his parents' divorce,
brought on by the hilariously immature antics of his father, and my
writing professor, the ever pompous Jonathan Baumbach (Jeff Daniels).
Brooklyn College was a hotbed of activism and liberal arts when I first encountered Jonathan Baumbach (rechristened "Bernard" in the film, a sly wink at Jonathan's mentor and hero, Bernard Malamud). The arrogance and complete lack of self awareness is perfectly captured by Daniels in his over-the-top performance which, amazingly, underplays the actual father.
To call the picture patricidal is to completely miss the point; Baumbach pere is so self centered, he likely sees the film as an homage. Baumbach Sr. is a great writer; he receives good reviews in the literary journals and his books sell in the hundreds. Baumbach Jr., on the other hand, is a great filmmaker, and his movies (The Life Aquatic) are seen by millions. I'm sure the father is disappointed that the son isn't pursuing tenure at a small Ohio college.
I saw this film in a cozy college theater at the Toronto Film Festival. I half expected to run into Jonathan Baumbach, in his leather patched tweed jacket, preening for the audience and eying the coeds.
Funny and poignant. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll want to choke the bastard.
More acutely than I've experienced in a long time, this film captures the process of personality inheritance within families. The interaction/influence between Bernard and Walt is almost painful to watch at times, but it's completely rich. Beyond just that father/son dynamic, the story is so poignant without ever getting sappy - a true accomplishment for a family drama involving divorce. Nothing hits you over the head. Nothing seems too forced. While there's plenty of confusion, discomfort, and alienation, a sense of love shines through, and I couldn't help but get attached to all of the characters. I recommend this film unconditionally.
Almost a perfect movie. Everyone needs to see this one.
Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are both extraordinary. Factor in the performances of Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline and this may be the most well-acted movie I've seen in a couple of years.
I've never enjoyed watching Daniels so much. Kline hits a home-run in his first major role. Eisenberg's performance is Oscar-worthy. (Yes, Daniels is great, but Eisenberg earns a Best Supporting Actor nomination in this one!)
What I enjoyed most of all is how some very, VERY delicate humor is brilliantly woven throughout this incredibly sad movie.
Cheers to Noah Baumbach for putting his life on paper and letting these terrific actors tell the tale.
That's it. Thanks for reading.
It's interesting to read all of the comments and how each reviewer has
found something unique that calls to them. Some reviewers have focused
on the boys or the father or the mother. Different scenes have been
noted, almost none by more than one reviewer. What this tells me is
that the writer/director has crafted a story in which all of the scenes
contribute to the whole. This was my experience watching the movie. It
was believable, well shot, great backgrounds, all in all a treat for
anyone who loves movies and can handle some pretty raw
dialog/situations.....and nothing gets blown up.
I would recommend this only for adults or a very mature teenager. The language and situations are tough but as I said, very believable. I identified with much of what the teens in this movie are going through and my sympathies definitely sided with them against their self-involved and self-indulgent parents. This is the best role I've ever seen Jeff Daniels in and having known men in my life like his character I think he was spot-on with his portrayal. There were no weak characterizations with any of the actors, for that matter.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Noah Baumbach's semi-autobiographical tale of divorce in the mid-1980's
in Brooklyn is funny and touching and ranks right up there with the
best work of Woody Allen or Sophia Coppola as superb bourgeois cinema
where we are treated to the neurotic underbelly of over-educated,
over-indulged, upwardly mobile, urban middle class families. This a
wonderful film imbued with a fantastic sense of place and time and
small details in which the viewer can find great delight (like the
hilarious scene where Jeff Daniels takes his teenage son and the kid's
new girlfriend to see David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" instead of the first
choice "Short Circuit" or the closing shot of the actual squid fighting
a whale at the NYC Musueum of Natural History).
Jeff Daniels is slyly funny as the cheapskate, snobbish father who was once the toast of the literary world and is now just getting by on teaching. Laura Linney is again perfection (when is she not, really) as the mother just starting her own brilliant literary career and who is a bit too open about her sexuality with her children. While the parents bicker over custody (even the cat gets to skate between two homes), the older son acts out by plagiarizing Pink Floyd in a talent show and nervous encounters with girls (one of whom is his father's live-in student/lover played by the always alluring Anna Paquin), and the younger son (a very good Owen Kline-real life son of Kevin Kline and Pheobe Cates) turns to drinking alone and public masturbation.
It's all as awkward, real, and devastatingly funny as it sounds. A great script and even better acting highlight this tale of a family on the skids. Every member of the family is brilliantly brought to life and even though they are acting in their own flawed, selfish, self-annihilating and myopic ways, they still endear themselves to the audience like they are our own family.
Bottom line: Only a Philistine would turn down the chance to enjoy "The Squid and the Whale."
Noah Baumbach, the immensely talented writer, and director of "The
Squid and the Whale" clearly demonstrates he is one of the brightest
young directors working in America today. Having admired his previous
films, we were looking forward to this new work in which he presents a
part of his life, baring his soul, something some other movie makers
would shy away from. This experience must have been a painful reminder
for Mr. Baumbah of his past, or maybe it served as a catharsis.
If you haven't seen the film, please stop reading here.
The Berkman household in Park Slope, Brooklyn, appears to be normal when we are introduced to the family. These are the kinds of parents that encourage their two children participate in discussions in which books are at the center of the conversation. What's more, Walt, the eldest boy, seems to know a lot about what is discussed. Bernard, the father, is an author that hasn't got a lot of recognition and now teaches college to support the family. Joan, the mother, also a writer, is starting to get her work published. The two sons, Walt and Frank are clever beyond their years.
Evidently, not all seems to be happy in the house. First, one notices Bernard making the couch in the morning, in which he has slept in order to "ease his back problems". Joan, is a supporting mother, but somehow, she appears to be distant. Both parents sit with the kids one night to tell them about their impending separation. Of course, this takes Frank, and especially Frank aback by the announcement. The semblance of a tightly knit family begins to unravel in front of the children's eyes.
For Walt, the situation is not as crucial as it is for Frank. Being older and being a city kid, Walt has seen this happening among his age group. For Frank, however, his parents break up is the end of the world, as he knew it. Both boys are resilient in accepting the situation. It's clear Bernard and Joan love their sons, but the idea of not having both parents around at the same time is devastating.
"The Squid and the Whale" is a film that lays bare the emotions the two boys are experiencing. Basically, it's their film as it shows how they have to adjust to the new circumstances. They both adore their parents, but the resentment is clear as they blame Bernard and Joan for daring to fall out of love and in a way, abandon them to a new reality the older Berkmans didn't prepared them for.
The quality of the acting Mr. Baumbach gets from this ensemble cast is absolutely amazing. We believe we are, in a way, intruding in this family's problems. We are voyeurs to the tragedy their separation presents for the boys. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are perfect as the elder Berkmans. Mr. Daniels, especially, gives an inspired performance for his take of the stingy Bernard. Ms. Linney, one of our best actresses, is marvelous as Joan.
What the director has done with the young actors, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline is something incredible. We can't think of any other director that could have accomplished what Noah Baumbach has in guiding them to make the great contribution both these teen agers gave to the film. Both actors are up to the task and there are never a false move from anyone of them.
The supporting cast is interesting. William Baldwin plays the tennis pro Ivan. Anna Paquin is good as Lili, Bernard's student that is wiser than her young years indicate. Halley Feiffer is perfectly sweet as Sophie who likes Walt.
The film has been photographed in a faded technique by Robert Yeoman that gives the film a nostalgic look. The musical score is fine, reflecting the era in which the movie takes place.
The movie is a triumph for Noah Baumbah who clearly shows he is an unique voice for these times.
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005) **** Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jessie
Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin.
Literary autobiography with heartfelt humor.
Filmmaker Noah Baumbach is back in fine form since his debut with the excellent "Kicking and Screaming" (a personal fave of mine; a "Diner" for the '90s) in this semi-autobiographical account of his family's dealing with his parent's divorce with bittersweet frankness and a heaping of witty humor.
The family Berkman of Park Slope, Brooklyn circa the early 1980s, consists of author/teacher Bernard (Daniels in a career high performance that deserves an Oscar nod), literary pursuant mother Joan (Linney sublimely good) and sons Walt and Frank (Eisenberg and Kline, the latter the progeny of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates making a Culkinian debut with surprising chops) aka Chicken and Pickle (their mom's nicknames). The quartet is harmonious in literary pursuits and drastic life changes when the parents agree on separating sending the boys (and ultimately themselves) into an emotional tailspin.
Bernard, a very sardonic critical yet loving man, is taking it very internally despite his sarcastic remarks about everything to his sons as a sounding board in his attempt to keep his boys together by a joint custody agreement with Joan by taking a fixer-upper brownstone across the park while he deals with the likelihood that his new book will never be published.
Joan's affairs are discovered shockingly by the boys - Walt the more avuncularly bitter lashing out and blaming her for not giving the marriage a chance reasoning that dad's lack of success has made her seek another shot a life of empty sex yet promise in her undiscovered writing talents (much to the resentment of Bernard); meanwhile budding tennis pro wannabe Frank, the youngest, begins to experiment with alcohol and masturbation.
Added to the mix is Lili (Paquin), a female writing student of Bernard's, who has a hidden agenda when Bernard invites her to share his new home as a roommate while the boys visit every other day with mixed results. Walt is attempting to begin a sexual awakening as well with his first girlfriend but is getting all the wrong comic advice from Bernard who is clueless with the opposite sex as he is also trying to have sex with Lili while burning over Joan who has hooked up with Frank's tennis instructor Ivan (a doofy Baldwin whose every other utterance is "Brother").
Achingly funny, sharply witty and skewering with some pricelessly amusing moments including the running gag of Bernard driving his kids around the neighborhood ("my space is missing!" an apt metaphor for his listless situation) and subtle touches (Bernard reading Saul Bellow's THE VICTIM and the new home decorated with posters of films like PSYCHO and THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE and using the instrumental theme of Tangerine Dream's score to "Risky Business" during Frank's sexual awakenings!) ) bring a smile if not a burst of laughter in the unease of a family's reluctant transition that will scar them forever.
Baumbach is clearly making a heartfelt valentine to his own upbringing when his parents eventually divorced during his trying teens and the affects that have rubbed off are bittersweet and universally humorous. He has a keen touch with his actors especially Daniels, the centerpiece character, who is brilliantly funny, touching and head-shaking misanthropic at the absurdity of his situation (at one point he says glibly with a touch of melancholy, "that's my home which I used to live in as you may know", to his son during one of their jaunts back and forth) that has echoes of his first fine role as Flap, the philandering English professor husband of the doomed Debra Winger in "Terms of Endearment", suggesting a bookend to what Flap may have become ultimately (and I'm damned if I'm not right at one point Walt is looking at his father's novel's backflap and the photo suggests a still from that film!). Bernard genuinely cares for his family but does things in such an ass-backward (and frugal) way that it is borderline heartbreaking especially his confounded loss of his status (both professionally and familially) that at one point I welled up with tears as he caressed a shelve of books while dropping Frank off with his mom. Daniels has always been one of my all-time faves and a severely underrated (and underestimated actor) it's be criminal if he didn't get an Academy Award nomination.
There are some very funny moments throughout with the brothers particularly Frank's stream of profanities in frustration at the tennis lessons (no doubt from his competitive father in several sequences) and Walt's stone-cold declaration that the musical piece he will be performing, Pink Floyd's "Hey You", was written by him as an original work!
Baumbach has crafted some fine work over the years (the aforementioned masterpiece of "Kicking & Screaming" about recent college grad buds deliberately not accepting their new status in the 'real world' by refusing to adapt and his recent collaboration with executive producer and fellow auteur Wes Anderson on last year's equally sublimely funny/sad "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") and his latest, a blend of Salinger and Updike suggests a novella come to life and one of the year's finest comedic dramas.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What about the freaking cat?? It's the only character in the whole damn
movie I cared about. Oh, and Sophie--I hope she ran far and fast.
It's bizarre that so many people and journalists raved about this. It's emotionally unsophisticated and full of tired clichés about pompous academics and Park Slope liberals. The director's completely unresolved issues are painfully displayed. Dude. Therapy. Get some.
The father is so one-dimensional that he's not interesting to watch. But the mother--who is clearly the sympathetic parent in the director's eyes--is also horrible. Because her husband is so awful she's allowed to cheat on him for years? And did no one else think that SHE was equally responsible for leaving Frank alone for the weekend? He's a child--what if her husband had had his heart attack then? And where was she going that she couldn't wait 30 minutes for her ex to show up? Also, saving up the "you wanted joint custody because you're cheap" revelation timing for maximum emotional crippling? Nice. All in all, a family full of miserable people who all deserved one another.
Do not be deceived by the stated running time: One and a half hours of torture can seem like five.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'll go a head and warn my review contains *SPOILERS* so if you haven't
seen the film I then READ AT YOUR OWN RISK....
I went into the squid and the whale excited but realistic about my expectations for the film. I was impressed by Jesse Eisenberg in Roger Dodger and have always respected Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney and with Noah Baumbach helming I figured the movie was in capable hands. However I did fear that after viewing the trailer that I had already seen the best squid had to offer. In some ways I was right.
Firstly it deserves praise for it's portrayal of adolescent males. I found a lot of truth in Franks character. The scenes in which he studies himself in the mirror reminded me greatly of the same self absorbed and curious qualities I had at that stage in my life. However Baumbach played some of Franks sexual exploits and dirty language in a exploitive manner. The way he was portrayed made his character too much of a tool to shock the audience. In fact many scenes depicting sexuality seemed thrown in. The line were Bernard says to Lili, "Put me in your mouth" was petty and did little to reinforce any character traits that weren't already glaringly clear. I have no problem with risqué dialog or scenes that show characters in a despicable light. However that scene in particular seemed hollow. Bernard or Lili were not developed enough for me to really care that he would say something so rude to her. I already got that he was a self absorbed, loathing character. If Baumbach had used that line to trigger a stronger response in any of the three characters involved it would have felt natural. Instead we see nothing of Lili after and Walt didn't meditate very long after hearing something so low come from his father's mouth. I understand Bernard was a jerk, and used similar language around Walt. But still, it was far harsher then anything he uttered before or after. Yet no one seemed to really notice. I could see how combined with the final argument and Bernard's self absorbed lines in the hospital it could "justify" Walt to see his parents in a clearer light. Yet Baumbach let the moment pass to quickly missing what could have been a stronger beat. Which brings me to my main problem with the film. Baumbach's pacing never lets the audience into the characters heads. He throws things at you and the characters so fast that neither you nor they seem to have the time to let the emotions sink in.
The number one thing that troubled me however was the ending. I understand that Walt mentions he could never look at the squid and the whale fighting but come on! To have him go and look at a giant squid and the whale fight as a way to end the movie? Please, not only do I always question movies that use the title as a line in the film that is "really important" to the story but to have something as petty and unemotional as a character looking at a science sculpture! If it had been better shot it may have work, however I didn't even have the time to let the emotions of the scene sink in before I was slammed with a big Title Card!!! Honestly I felt I was watching an unfinished film and that the editor didn't know what to do so they just put a title card to let the audience know "yes that was all folks!"
One other thing I found useless was the "gag" although no one laughed where Joan comes out of the bathroom and the Walt says something about the nasty smell. Why include this? Was it funny? No! Was it important to the story, scene, or characters? No! All it did was leave a foul taste in my mouth for no reason.
Still for as much as I've said what didn't work Squid does have some good things going for it. I'd like to thank the whole crew for making a film about people and human relationships in a time when so many movies seem to be about nothing more then eye candy. Also big props to all the actors for fine performances.
Squid and the Whale is a much stronger film then most, which is why I was so disappointed that it couldn't rise above it's problems to be something truly special.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach's tale of his incredibly dysfunctional family could easily have been re-named "The Addams Family - 1986". The film recounts his ugly childhood with his younger brother, his writer-father and aspiring writer-mother living in Park Slope, Brooklyn in 1986. His father Bernard, played revoltingly well by Jeff Daniels, has absolutely no concept of what's going on outside of his own world as he spews obscenities and dwells on his past as a respected writer; of course now no one wants anything to do with his writing so he teaches English instead (Gee, haven't we see that a few hundred times in films?)Bernard's wife Joan, played by a mousy Laury Linney, decide that after many years of marriage that divorce is the best option; which seems odd considering that they have nothing good to say about each other and that Joan has had affairs with at least four different men during their marriage. Why they don't continue with this nightmarish marriage isn't explained; there isn't a catalyst for this decision. Once the separation occurs and Bernard relocates several blocks away to a house of lesser amenities the film shifts focus to the effect the separation has on the two children; Walt and Frank Berkman. Walt, played by a brow-furrowed Jesse Eisenberg, idolizes his father and models his view of the world after Bernard's twisted vision. The majority of observations from Walt's mouth are direct quotes from his father, yet instead of revealing the depth of admiration Walt has for his father these comments simply show Walt as being shallow and pathetic. We wait for Walt to develop a mind of his own but sadly that never happens. Frank, played mincingly by Owen Kline, steals the film as the repulsive chronic masturbator who leaves his calling card on any non-human surface. At one point Joan and Bernard get their child custody duties mixed up and accidentally leave Frank alone for three days. Frank spends the time drinking Scotch, masturbating to his mom's underwear, and passing out on the bathroom floor. The next scene is Joan and Bernard being confronted by the school counselor. What happened for the rest of Frank's long weekend? A nine year old boy left alone with hard liquor and a Oedipal complex is a film in itself, but we aren't allowed to witness this, or a scene where the parents find Frank near death from alcohol poisoning (assuming that could have easily happened) lying in a pile of his mother's panties. The rest of the film is filled with Walt's blatant plagiarism, a non-stop stream of offensive cursing, arguments, premature ejaculation, Bernard allowing his dinner guests at restaurants to only order half-orders because he's so cheap, unbelievable therapy sessions, Bernard trying to force his female student and border to perform oral sex only to be interrupted by his son, and a medical emergency that is offered as redemption but fails. Contrary to reviews I've read, there is nothing charming, endearing, funny, or clever about this film. It truly boggles my mind that most critics enjoyed this film. The only reason I can conjure is that most of these critics were raised in a family as hellish as this one so it's like spending time with old, heavily medicated friends. If this film's final scene was of the four Berkman's going for a hot air balloon ride over the Catskills, and the balloon crashing in flames into the mountains with no survivors, then I just might have walked out of the theater with a smile on my face. As it is, this a slice of American ugliness that no one should have to endure.
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