Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Squid & the Whale

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/9/06 w/ Additional Edits.

Childhood and growing up is often a very difficult stage for anyone. When the subject of parents divorcing come up. For some, it's very painful in where children are forced to take sides and deal with the anger of not having a very stable family. That was something Noah Baumbach had to deal with as a young teen when his own parents, novelist Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown divorced. In 1995, Baumbach broke through with his independent debut feature Kicking & Screaming about the difficulties of post-college life. His 1997 follow-up Mr. Jealousy about a man's jealousy towards his girlfriend's former relationships didn't do as well in comparison to his debut feature. Baumbach kept a low profile in doing various projects including co-writing 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with its director Wes Anderson. In 2005, with Anderson serving as a producer, Baumbach returned with some said was a revealing yet funny look into the world of divorce with The Squid & the Whale.

Written and directed by Baumbach, The Squid & the Whale is about two young boys growing up in the 80s in Brooklyn when their parents had decided to divorce. From the perspective of the older son, he takes on the side of his writer father after learning that his mother had affairs with other men. His younger brother meanwhile, has taken the side of his aspiring writing mother while discovering the world of sex. Baumbach chooses to study and bring humor to the subject of divorce where its revealed to be his most personal film yet. Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, and William Baldwin. The Squid & the Whale is one of 2005's heartbreaking yet funny films about family situations from Noah Baumbach.

It's 1986 in Brooklyn where the Berkman family led by novelist/teacher Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and wife/aspiring writer Joan (Laura Linney) are playing tennis with their sons, 16-year old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 10-year old Frank (Owen Kline). Joan's writing talents is now flourishing while Bernard is still trying to get a publisher for his novel where the marriage is starting to fall apart after years of tension. Bernard has suspected Joan of having affairs with different men for years as he tells Walt while Joan is fed up with Bernard's high-intellectual attitude. Then one day when the kids went to school where Bernard tells them about a family conference for the evening, Bernard and Joan announced that they're going to divorce. While the parents agreed to have joint custody where the boys would stay with a parent for some days, the announcement devastates the young Frank. More problems get complicated when the family isn't sure what to do with the family cat who is also going to live by the same schedule the boys do. Bernard tells the boy that he's moved out to a house some blocks away from Joan's home.

Things become complicated for the boys as Frank remains devastated while Walt gets some advice from friends about joint custody. Walt also starts to be smitten by a student named Sophie (Halley Feiffer) who learned that Walt is going to be part of the school talent show. Frank however, due to the shock of his divorce his becoming frustrated with his tennis lessons as his teacher Ivan (William Baldwin) is concerned. Frank’s behavior also becomes stranger where he starts to engage in drinking alcohol and other things. On the day it was supposed to be Joan's day with the kids, Walt tells his mother that he won't live with her anymore after hearing about her affairs. A split between the boys go on as Frank's anger starts to go towards Bernard, especially when he decided to have one of his students in Lili (Anna Paquin) to live with him. When Walt is about to go on another date with Sophie, Bernard decides to join them where he took the two to see Blue Velvet by David Lynch where Bernard tells Walt some awful advice about Sophie.

Frank decides to run away back to his mother's house where he learned that she is now dating Ivan and had just got her story picked up for a top New York magazine. The young Frank becomes confused by everything as Bernard is now dating Lili in whom Walt has a crush on. Though Frank likes having Ivan around, he remains emotionally confused while Walt's relationship with Sophie becomes troubling due to the advice his father gave him. During the talent contest where his parents, Ivan, Sophie, and Lili attended, Walt wins the contest while claiming that Pink Floyd's Hey You was originally written by him. Walt is still angry about his mother's new relationship where Sophie notices that Walt is eyeing other girls. Walt even attempts to flirt with Lili one night where it becomes a disaster.

The effects of the Berkmans' split finally unfolds when the boys began to have some trouble in school as Frank's strange behavior gets noticed while Walt is accused of plagiarism. Walt is forced into psychological evaluation by a counselor (Ken Leung) where old memories of his childhood starts to emerge. Realizing what's going on all this time, Walt's confusion starts to emerge to the point that the boys are now caught in the middle of a nasty war between their parents.

The film's tag line pretty much sums up what the film is saying... joint custody blows. In what is a very personal story, Noah Baumbach manages to capture all the angst, confusion, and humor that surrounds the world of divorce. While most films about divorce are often very serious or take the route of comedy. Baumbach chose an interesting approach by having the story be more about the boys instead of the parents though they get an equal amount of back story. Baumbach's approach to realism is very evident in not just the affects of the boys but how they too get into conflict where the character of Walt is trying to be his father with all of this intellectual jargon about Kafka when has no idea on who he is. The subplot of Frank's emotional journey is equally as troubling as Walt's own exploration where Frank embarks on activities that are really disgusting but is understandable for his own emotional confusion.

The script that Baumbach concocts is really one of the best scripts ever written since it contains some very funny, realistic dialogue and some great development of characters. The dialogue is often filled with some of the most inane, intellectual commentary about art on how a certain book by Dickens or a film by a director is mentioned and Bernard says, "it's minor stuff". Even some of the funnier dialogue is done with great timing about everything as the characters themselves, notably the Berkmans are done with great depth as Joan admits to her own guilt and her desire to be a writer. Bernard's own struggle to reinvigorate his own writing career and the boys dealing with their own parents divorce and their own individual goals.

On the directing front, Baumbach goes for a realistic yet home-like feel where the film is shot on location in Brooklyn for 23 days in the summer of 2004. His approach is real yet entertaining from some of the funny moments where it feels natural to the more emotional moments that is relatable to anyone remembering when they're young. Overall, Baumbach has created a smart, funny, yet heartbreaking tale of divorce and the affects of its children.

Helping to create a colorful yet grimy Super 16mm feel of mid-1980s Brooklyn is Robert Yeomen, Wes Anderson's cinematographer. While the film does look a bit like some of Anderson's own films, Yeomen goes for a different style to convey the intimacy of the different worlds of the Berkmans while bringing some lighting to the exteriors of Brooklyn. Production designer Anne Ross does great work in getting the look of Brooklyn from the arty world of Joan's house to the delapidate look of Bernard's home while catching some 1980s objects and albums while costume designer Amy Westcott does great work in getting the 80s clothing along with the intellectual look of the parents. Editor Tim Streeto does some great editing where the film has a nice rhythm and use of jump-cuts that gives the film a nice pace for its 81-minute running time. Sound mixer Allan Byer also does great work in providing the intimate atmosphere of the Brooklyn neighborhoods.

The film has a great soundtrack assembled by Randall Poster that features a wonderfully melancholic score from Luna's Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips that plays to the film's humorous vibe and angst-ridden storyline. The soundtrack features some great cuts which is dominated mostly by the work of Bert Jansch plus a couple of songs by Loudon Wainwright III. Other cuts which are mostly 80s music includes Bryan Adams, the Cars, Lou Reed, the Feelies, the famous theme of Risky Business by Tangerine Dream, and a cover of Mr. Mister's Kyrie sung by Owen Kline's sister Greta. Other cuts from John Phillips, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, and Blossom Dearie reveal a folk side to the film while another famous cut that dominates the film is Pink Floyd's Hey You which Baumbach got to use where he thanks Roger Waters in the final credits. Though the song is really about the aftermath of the character Pink's building the wall, in this film, Baumbach chose to reinterpret the song to convey the troubling family circumstances which definitely gives some new meaning as the original song and Eisenberg's performance of it is in great use.

The film overall has a great cast that includes some memorable small performances from Ken Leung as the school counselor, David Benger as Frank's friend Carl, Adam Rose as Walt's friend Otto, and Noah Baumbach's brother Nico as a friend of Bernard who invited him for a college seminar. Halley Feiffer is wonderful in her role as Sophie, a young woman is sweet and caring yet is disturbed by Walt's attitude and his attempt to be like his father as it's an excellent performance from the young actress. Anna Paquin is also excellent as the more sexual vivacious Lili who writes disturbing poetry about her body while trying to seduce Walt and Bernard, in which the latter is even creepier since Jeff Daniels played her father in 1996's Fly Away Home. William Baldwin is great in the role of Ivan, a man who isn't a dim-wit as Bernard claims to be as he is a caring, sensitive teacher who tries to be the best buddy for young Frank as it's a great, restrained performance from the actor.

The film's real breakthrough performance goes to the young Owen Kline, who is son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, that got the part through the suggestion of Baumbach's then-girlfriend/actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Kline's performance is very natural in the way he conveys the confusion and sadness of a young boy dealing with his parents' divorce while leaning towards stranger paths discovering things like sex and alcohol. It's a great performance from the young actor who proves to have the same chops his parents have. Jesse Eisenberg gives another riveting performance as Walt, by making him less likeable and more confused in his own journey following the divorce. Eisenberg, who made a name for himself with the brilliant Roger Dodger, gets more to do in the way he tries to be like his father while is forced to deal the realities when it comes to girls and why his parents divorced. Overall, it's both Eisenberg and Kline that are the heart of the film and story as these two are actors to watch in the years to come.

Laura Linney brings another great performance as the driven yet frustrated Joan Berkman. Linney conveys all of the warmth and care of a mother while having some great, intense scenes with Eisenberg in the way they convey their tension. Linney is aware that her character is flawed and makes her more complex in understanding her own infidelities where she doesn't make Joan sympathetic or looked with disgust. It's a great performance from Linney as she also some great scenes with Jeff Daniels. Daniels delivers what might be his best performance in a long time since he's often played supporting parts and rarely leading roles. In a role that was supposed to be for Bill Murray, Daniels conveys all of the things that Bernard is. In one word, Bernard is an asshole and Daniels makes him a memorable yet enjoyable character despite saying some of the most awful things about art and people. It's a great performance from Jeff Daniels as he's great with other actors while he manages to bring a lot of depth and complexity to a character as unlikeable as Bernard.

When the film premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, it was a surprise hit as Baumbach won writing and directing awards while later winning several awards for his screenplay including getting an Oscar nomination for his script. The film also honored Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney for their performances which they both received Golden Globe nods as Daniels got more attention in a role that some said was a comeback. The film was also a comeback for Baumbach as later that year, he married Jennifer Jason Leigh who is set to appear in his next feature that also stars Nicole Kidman. Overall, thanks to a great script, a great cast, and great premise on the affects of divorce, The Squid & the Whale is one of 2005's most heartbreaking and funny films about family.

© thevoid99 2011


Courtney Small said...

One of my favourite things about this film is the script. It is one of the few movies where I actually went out and bought a copy of the screenplay.

thevoid99 said...

I do love the screenplay and I think Baumbach should've won instead of fucking Crash.

I connected more with Baumbach's story of teenage awkwardness though my parents didn't get divorced. I really did love this film and it remains my favorite of Baumbach's so far.

I also own a couple of screenplay books. One for Secretary and the other for Ghost World.