Sunday, April 09, 2006

Review - The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale, an often excruciating study of a broken marriage, establishes its tone in the opening scene. It’s a family tennis match, with dad Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and his 16 year-old son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) taking on mother Joan (Laura Linney) and younger sibling Frank (Owen Kline). What should be a friendly doubles match soon degenerates into naked hostility, as Bernard’s competitive streak comes to the fore. “Hit it into her backhand, it‘s weak” he tells Walt, and he’s soon firing blistering shots directly at his increasingly furious wife. The match ends abruptly amid familiar squabbles and the boys prepare for a very uncomfortable drive home. Clearly, the Berkman marriage is heading for the rocks, and the battle lines have been drawn.

As the Berkmans’ marriage falls apart the two sons take sides. Walt stands by his father, whom he idolises, and accuses Joan of ditching Bernard because his recent books haven’t been as successful as they used to be. In contrast, the younger, more sensitive Frank wants to stay at home with his mother, especially when he sees the rundown old house Bernard has moved into across town. In the end the family settles on a joint custody plan, with the parents having the boys on alternate days, but this approach doesn’t do much to ease the tensions and difficulties which this situation has raised. As one of Walt’s friends perceptively points out, “joint custody blows”.

It’s a case of art imitating life for writer/director Noah Baumbach. The Squid and the Whale is heavily autobiographical and many scenes have the unmistakeable ring of truth having been lifted directly from his own experiences. Baumbach takes us on an often painful journey through the debris of the Berkmans’ marriage, but the film is also full of wonderfully funny moments - the kind of moments which make us laugh because we recognise them to be true. This blend of black comedy and piercing drama is a careful balancing act to pull off, and it’s one which Baumbach mostly handles with aplomb.

Any good family drama needs a memorable patriarch, and The Squid and the Whale benefits from having the magnificent Jeff Daniels in the lead role of Bernard Berkman. Bernard is a wonderful creation. One can only guess at how closely the character is based on Baumbach’s own father (the novelist Jonathan Baumbach), but I doubt he would be flattered by the portrayal. He’s an awesomely self-absorbed character, fully convinced of his own brilliance and of everyone else’s deficiencies. He dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens” and describes Franz Kafka as “one of my predecessors”, lines which habitually find their way into the mouth of his admiring son Walt.

Daniels has long been one of American cinema’s most underrated and underused actors and here, sporting a heavy beard which seems to drag his whole face down a couple of inches, he gives the best performance of his career so far; fully inhabiting Bernard’s imperious sense of self-importance, although his eyes betray the true emotions of a man who has seen his acclaimed status in literary circles slide into irrelevance. His latest manuscript has only met with an endless series of rejection letters and he can barely disguise his jealous anger at his wife’s increasing success as a writer.

The performances from the two children caught in the marital crossfire are exceptional too. Walt is insufferably pretentious and longs to be like his father. He describes The Metamorphosis as Kafka’s masterpiece, despite having never read it, and when his girlfriend asks him for his analysis of the book’s ending he mumbles an answer along the lines of “well…it’s very ambiguous…very Kafkaesque”. His obsession with living up to his father’s image and winning his approval is tangible, and Eisenberg (who was hugely impressive in 2002’s Rodger Dodger) manages to keep Walt’s irritating, occasionally obnoxious behaviour grounded in reality. Younger brother Frank is played by Owen Kline, the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, and he delivers a confident, natural display as the mummy’s boy who reacts to the divorce by experimenting with alcohol, swearing and masturbation.

In fact, the only character who doesn’t really come to life is Joan, whose role is a little underdeveloped in comparison to the three male members of the Berkman family. Joan is perfectly played by the ever-excellent Laura Linney, but Baumbach doesn’t seem to have realised her role as fully, giving her little to work with aside from an affair with Frank’s tennis instructor (an inspired cameo from William Baldwin). Bernard has a fling of his own, with one of his writing students, but these scenes of an older man and a young seductress are slightly tainted by the fact that the actress in question is Anna Paquin who played Daniels’ daughter in Fly Away Home.

Baumbach’s direction of The Squid and the Whale is rough and ready, shooting in 16mm and using handheld cameras to capture the film’s raw emotions. Baumbach has worked with Wes Anderson in the past - who acts as a producer on this film - and some viewers may be tempted to draw comparisons with Anderson’s own portraits of familial discord; but Baumbach’s down-to-earth style is much more effective than Anderson’s crafted, self-consciously quirky approach. With so much of the film rooted in his own background, The Squid and the Whale is often painfully honest and it doesn’t shy away from confronting the effects of divorce head-on. Having said that, I never really felt moved by the film. I often found it stark and lacerating, but it didn’t really get under my skin; it always seemed more likely to provoke tears of laughter than tears of sadness.

This lack of an emotional climax to the film is frustrating, especially after Baumbach rarely puts a foot wrong in the first two thirds of the film. In fact he doesn’t seem to know how he wants his picture to end and he leaves us with a disappointingly pat climax which teeters on the edge of cliché, making the central ‘squid and whale’ metaphor overly explicit in the process. Nevertheless, The Squid and the Whale is still an admirable piece of work, an intelligent, mature and fascinating film which is sharply written and acted with real skill. It has clearly been a very personal project for Baumbach and he can be proud of what his labour of love has become. Whatever the merits and flaws of The Squid and the Whale, one can only hope its making has been a cathartic experience for the director.