Squid and the Whale, The

dir: Noah Baumbach
[img_assist|nid=908|title=No, not the prequel to Megashark Versus Giant Octopus|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=338]
Ah, the agony and the ecstasy of being part of a New York literary, dysfunctional family falling apart in slow motion in the 80s. Well, there’s no ecstasy, and the agony is keen yet comedic. It’s the best way to get revenge on your family that I’ve ever heard of, apart from converting to Islam, possibly.

From what I gather, The Squid and the Whale is almost entirely autobiographical. As such, I don’t know if director and writer Noah Baumbach is welcome at either of his parents’ places for Thanksgiving dinner. His portrayal of his parents, his brother and himself is scathing. Even though the film persistently goes for humourous pathos rather than miserable domestics, it is nonetheless ruthless in its treatment of its characters.

For all that, the characters are pretty well-rounded and believable, and uniformly well acted. I guess Noah knew exactly how he wanted these characters to look and sound, since he grew up with their templates.

Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard (Jeff Daniels) are getting divorced. Joan is sweet to her two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), but is looking for something more than what she’s got. Bernard is a college professor and an intellectual of such grand Olympian stature in his own mind that the rest of humanity look like little more than ants at the feet of the Colossus that he is. A man so convinced of his own brilliance that he sees everyone around him as petty morons.

So self-centred, so arrogant that it takes the breath away. So convinced is he of the supremacy of his own opinions that he is quite sure other people don’t really need to have any or should bother expressing them. Passive-aggressive, utterly unable to empathise, understand or even think about the people around him; he treats people like they are mere inconveniences unless there is some function they can carry out for him then and there.

The tone and level of his egomania is set right from the start, as the four members of the family play a ‘friendly’ game of tennis. Games played by the family are not for the purposes of having fun, as Bernard plays like it’s the final of the US Open, undeterred by the harm he might cause as long as it means that he wins. He tells his eldest son Walt, who worships him, to aim his shots at his mother’s backhand, because he knows it’s her weakness.

Walt has somehow become convinced that his father is as great as his father believes. As such he models himself upon his dad, dying for his approval and love, which is not forthcoming. He takes this worship to such an extreme that he no longer feels the need to generate opinions of his own, parroting his father’s opinions as if they are Divine Law. He doesn’t have to read any of the books or watch any of the films his father continually opines over because he’s convinced there’s nothing more important than Dad’s judgement.

Whilst talking about Metamorphosis with a girl, not having read it himself, all he can say is that “it’s very Kafkaesque”, to which the girl points out that of course it is, since Franz Kafka wrote it. Which comes as a surprise to Walt.

Walt, the stand-in for the director himself, isn’t stupid. But through the story it is at least implied that Walt’s worship of Bernard has rendered him intellectually lazy and arrogant, traits not surprising, considering their source. When accused of plagiarism later on, he claims that it’s not really plagiarism, because he feels like he could have written it, and therefore it’s practically his anyway. Which is a staggeringly conceited way of looking at things.

Beyond the question of authorship, it is in his dealings with other people, especially women, that his father’s legacy shines through the most. He can be needy, manipulative and dismissive all at the same time, all because he somehow believes his father is the best model for male behaviour. The poor, fucked up guy. It is seen most keenly when Walt repeats his father’s mantra, “Don’t be difficult” to someone with the audacity to think for themselves, unwilling to go along with the program.

His younger brother Frank deals with the parental discord by acting out in progressively funny and vulgar ways. Though he looks about 12, he starts drinking booze, compulsively masturbating and swearing constantly. Finally I have a role model to emulate as well.

Joan searches for men who are the complete opposite of her husband, men who he refers to as Philistines. Men who don’t spend all their time wanking on about high literature and “serious” art. Men not so self-absorbed that they notice she’s actually there and want to have sex with her. Though she looks like a saint compared to Bernard, she is far too frank with her sons, going into details no sons want to ever hear their mothers speak of. Both parents have neglected their marriage and their children to a certain extent, even if it sounds like all the blame is aimed at Bernard.

The parents work out a system of joint custody to divide their children’s time during the week, which works to complicate and confuse matters even more. The cat, what about the cat? Even the cat gets to divide its time between the father’s slum and their mother’s place.

The film doesn’t really have much of a plot, but you really wouldn’t want a story of this kind to have too much plot. You want it to meander along as it fleshes out what is essentially a character study of four members of a family. But for all that it is never boring, and (at least for me) constantly engaging. There’s always another layer to be peeled away, another way for the director to quietly and dexterously fillet his father with the keenest of knives. It really is amazing to wonder if he still has any form of relationship with his father, Jonathan Baumbach, who, if anything, is probably even more pretentious and distant than the incredible Jeff Daniels version here.

Jeff Daniels does a superlative job with the character. He plays an appalling father, but he doesn’t let Bernard go over the edge and degenerate into parody or caricature. He seems like a genuinely believable person who happens to not really be aware of the fact that there are other humans around him with their own minds and ideas. Everything is seen through the lens of how it reflects or impacts on him, despite the fact that he seems completely unaware of his impact on other people. He’s like a giant, bearded infant prodigy, long past the point of being cute and novel, but still throwing tantrums. His jealousy towards his wife’s increasing literary success alongside his slide in obscurity provides new ways for his pettiness to reign supreme.

He plays it perfectly well at all times, in a career-best performance.

Laura Linney is always great, so to compliment her seems unnecessary. She’s dependably good. Jesse Eisenberg is also excellent as the director’s surrogate, capturing a kind of nervous energy and maturity trapped within a deeply confused and stumbling character who thinks he’ll be fine as long as he keeps believing that his father is a god. Ever since I saw him in a keen little flick called Roger Dodger, I’ve known he’s destined for greatness playing dweebs, nebbishes and shmendricks. He’s damn good.

The parents fight their battles through their children, through the possession of books from their disputed collection, to holding on to the kids despite the fact that they don’t particularly want to have them around. The genteel nature of the dialogue and the urbanity of most of what happens belies the fact that it is family and marriage seen as a battle between implacable foes, like the Squid and the Whale from the title, an exhibit from the Natural History Museum that Walt remembers from his childhood.

The real battle becomes not which parent “wins”, but whether their children will realise they are their own people, and that they aren’t obligated to become their parents. So whilst the film’s ending is awfully abrupt, it brings with it a note of bitter-sweet hopefulness to send us on our way.

The director must have come out of it relatively okay, seeing as he was able to craft his experiences into a film as funny and touching as this one.

7 times I would not be asking my dad if he thought my girlfriend was hot out of 10

“It's Welles' masterpiece, really. Many people think it's Citizen Kane, but Magnificent Ambersons, if it hadn't been ruined by the studio, would've been his crowning achievement. As it is, it's still brilliant. It's the old story, genius not being recognised by the industry.”
“It sounds great. Who's in it?”
“I don't know. I haven't seen it yet.” – The Squid and the Whale