We Don't Live Here Anymore

'The Squid and the Whale' swims under the surface of divorce

When I read that Wes Anderson was producing Noah Baumbach's latest, The Squid and the Whale, I couldn't help flinching. Baumbach's debut, Kicking and Screaming, a slice of white postcollegiate ennui, was carefully observed, sharply written, and, yes, as Baumbach recently described it, "clever." It was not whimsical. Uh-oh, I thought, watch out for bored dolphinographers and glowing jellyfish (which are not jellyfish really) and beautiful women with nothing to do. And what's with the aquatic theme anyway? An easy way to reference the salty water of the womb/primordial ocean--and the (eternal?) (male?) desire to return to (and claim?) it--without any intention of investigating said desire?

It turns out that the sea life haunting Baumbach is a pile of plaster and paint in the New York Museum of Natural History. And if the family rapidly deconstructing at the heart of this movie is as self-involved, silly, and hilariously insensitive as the Tenenbaums, there's a material sense of consequence to it all--which makes the conflicts of these Baumbachs, er, "Berkmans," amusing in a terrible rather than archly sentimental way. Based on the director's adolescent experience with the divorce of his parents--former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown and novelist Jonathan Baumbach--The Squid and the Whale finds incandescent absurdity not in ridiculously jerry-rigged situations, but in ridiculously mundane ones. I don't want to denigrate it by calling it "authentic"; what it is is empathetic and unsentimental and very artful in a relentlessly artless style.

It's the last of these qualities that will piss people off. Within the first five minutes, as we watch the family on the tennis court playing out their tensions with vicious aim, there is enough handheld-camera shakiness to nauseate a Filmmaking 101 instructor. The amateurish font of the title and credits makes me crazy. It's too obvious a something, whether it's a nod toward adolescent scrawls, or a DIY celebration, or a pretense of humility. Baumbach seems to be forcing the viewer to see his movie's seams by their awkward joinings--just as Anderson does via his stagy theatricality. Some people, however, will understand the film's studied gracelessness as an effort to be--or a consequence of being--"raw." Bitter and painful as his dialogue is, I don't think Baumbach is opening a fresh artery. For one thing, the movie is too funny. And for another, it's too tough.

Evidence of that tough-mindedness can be found in the fact that some (male) critics have complained that the philandering female in this marital mismatch gets off too lightly; yet this female critic kept waiting in vain for the arrogant snob Mr. Berkman (played at full tilt by Jeff Daniels) to be outed as the One to Blame for It All. The tense face-off between Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard may come chockablock with petty demands and cheap shots, but there is little favoritism. One wants to sympathize with Joan because she's Laura Linney, but Linney and Baumbach keep her selfishly distant--as a mother might seem to a child when she's pulling away to please herself after a long time of pleasing others. And Daniels's fading star novelist is a gasbag par excellence--his idea of moral failure is to be a "philistine," i.e., someone who doesn't "like books and interesting films and things"--but he also conveys deep hurt and a fury of loneliness.

Similarly, the humor in the film rises out of the characters' outrageous cruelty--and their equally outrageous vulnerability. The two boys, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline, as soulful as his mom Phoebe Cates and as deadpan comedic as his dad Kevin Kline) take sides and act out extreme versions of their preferred parents: Walt as a self-righteous, plagiarizing artiste and Frank as a drunken masturbator. While neither parent protects the children in the slightest, Frank and Walt are not portrayed as simple victims. They are in part at least creatively responding to the crisis, even if their adaptations are self-destructive. Each gets a reality check of sorts, though Walt's is much more explicit (Frank and his mom finally wander off to find a lost cat--or "pussy"--which I suspect is meant to represent something different for each of them).

It's Walt's task to see through his own creative emptiness to his father's, and the amazing thing in this post-Anderson father-son dynamic is that there is no nick-of-time hugfest, no redemption of the patriarch(y). I will forgive the tailing off of Frank and Joan's emotional arcs, the sudden narrowing in on Baumbach's alter ego Walt, the fact that the film's last image lacks the necessary resonance, just for this simple refusal to wistfully rewrite history. The bastard stays a bastard, as bastards usually do (and perhaps especially early to mid-period boomer bastards like the one running our country).

Which is not to say that Baumbach didn't rewrite his family's history. Of course he did, with the fine cruelty--as Voice critic J. Hoberman has pointed out--of the artist on the trail of a story. The story he's out to tell is not one of acquiescence with or accommodation to history. His story--as a son, sure, but more as a man looking at the tradition of masculinity--involves tussling, scrambling, and wrestling (obviously, with the seams showing) to get his head out of his past. Just so he can say, with Walt, and all the other young dudes: What thefuck?

Also in this issue: She Found It at the Movies: Give it up for Georgia Brown, 'Squid' director Noah Baumbach's film-critic mom by Rob Nelson.

 
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