catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 15 :: 2006.07.28 — 2006.09.08


Dissolution of a family

Going into The Squid and the Whale, I had no idea that Wes Anderson was involved as a producer. When his name showed up on the end credits, though, I wasn’t surprised. For one thing, the film is directed by Noah Baumbach, Anderson’s co-writer on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. But the connections run much deeper than that—Baumbach’s film not only shares many thematic strands with Life Aquatic, but it actually explores some of them in greater depth. Indeed, The Squid and the Whale is perhaps the most profoundly meaningful movie about divorce since Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

And it’s not a message movie, either. It’s more than just a billboard that says, “DIVORCE IS BAD.” It’s a ponderous film about the politics of divorce—specifically of joint custody—and the effects it has on children.

As such, it’s a much harder pill to swallow than any of Anderson’s movies. Films like Tenenbaums are remarkably poignant because of their mixture of comedy and tragedy; to a certain extent, Baumbach does the same thing, but his movie tips the scale in favor of heartbreak. It’s a sobering story, painfully truthful and brutally transparent, its understanding of its own emotional content so gritty and real that one imagines Baumbach—like Anderson—is himself a survivor of joint custody.

Where Tenenbaums and Life Aquatic are both set in worlds that defy chronological classification, The Squid and the Whale takes place in a vivid 1970s Brooklyn. The Berkman household is split right down the middle by a mercilessly cold war; Bernard and Joan have just divorced, and their children, Walt and Frank, quickly pick sides. Walt reacts to his father with spellbound admiration, and comes to view his mother as a cheap floozy. Frank is scared of his father, and prefers the company of his mother.

Alas, neither child has much of a say in the matter. Their parents are behaving too foolishly, too selfishly and irresponsibly, to pay much attention to their children’s needs. Bernard—played here by Jeff Daniels, in his finest performance to date—is a monstrously egotistical English professor, obsessed with his own talent and importance, even though he hasn’t published a novel in years and never sold many books to begin with. Meanwhile, Joan is played by Laura Linney, and is a richly complex figure—at times she seems warm and motherly, but she can just as often be the most self-absorbed and reckless of the lot.

Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) seeks to emulate his father in everything that he does, and quickly turns into an equally frightening egomaniac. He is convinced of his own importance and overly confident in his own understanding of the world—think of Stephen Colbert, only scary rather than funny. Even more troubling, Walt follows his father’s example in his interactions with women, choosing to “play the field” rather than show any commitment or loyalty.

Frank (Owen Kline) reacts to his parents’ split with anger and fear, and, feeling abandoned by both parents, he quickly develops a nasty set of bad habits. He drinks and imitates his father’s foul language; he runs away from home; and, confused about sexuality and intimacy, he participates in a disturbing form of vandalism that may be the film’s most troubling moment.

And still the parents do nothing. They both have their own affairs to attend to—and I do mean affairs. Bernard takes up with his twenty-year-old student, Lilly (Ana Paquin), setting yet another bad example for Walt. Joan, on the other hand, begins a relationship with Frank’s tennis coach, and makes little effort to conceal the sexual nature of the relationship from her boys. “It has nothing to do with you,” she tells Walt, revealing far more than she even realizes.

Baumbach thankfully finds some moments of humor and grace along the way, and his use of metaphor—tennis, ping-pong, a Pink Floyd song, and the titular underwater creatures—is artful and profound. But it isn’t always easy to sit through. The Berkman family is about as dysfunctional as any onscreen family I’ve seen. Their story is a nightmare, a tale of heartbreak that’s sad because it’s so painfully honest. More than once, I found myself thinking of a line from a Radiohead song: “Cut the kids in half… cut the kids in half…”

Bringing this horror story to life is a talented group of actors. Jeff Daniels has never played a character as deplorable as Bernard, and he’s never been so unnervingly believable. Laura Linney is baffling and mysterious as the complicated Joan. And the two boys are played so well that you quickly forget that they’re even actors. The Berkmans may not be as eccentric as the Tenenbaums, but they’re just as memorable.

So is all this darkness worth sitting through? Depends. Some discerning moviegoers might decide that the content here is too heavy, too bleak for them to handle. For others, though, The Squid and the Whale is an important story. It gives us much to think about, especially those of us who have experienced divorce or know someone who is experiencing divorce. It leads us to increased awareness of the consequences of our own selfishness, and to increased compassion for the children that feel like they’ve been cut in half by divorce. And, when we see such a beautiful film born out of something as horrible as divorce and joint custody, it just might remind us that all things really do work out for the good.

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