Which brings us to this weeks superior treat. Its called The Squid And The Whale and its an independent feature about the pains of divorce. Sounds familiar? Sounds tedious? Sounds like your life? So why bother to go see it? Famed Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn once said about movies with a message that if you want to send a message, get Western Union. Many people in the movie business think thats an hilarious comment. Oh that Sammy. Such a card! I never found it funny. From the moment I first heard it, I always thought it was a pathetic thing to say. But maybe thats just me.
There are numerous reasons people go to the movies. They like the stars, they like the director (if they actually know who the director is or what a director does. Am I starting to sound like a snob here? Tough.) Anyway, they like the genre, they like the subject matter, they need to get out of the house. The reason you want to see The Squid And The Whale is because you like movies and its so damn good. In its superb way, the film draws humor from a situation wrought with conflict. Its actually an entertaining picture, answering myriad questions about the separation of spouses: who gets the children, who gets the pets, who stays in the house and who moves out? I love that the movie also gets into the battle over material things. I want that chair. I need the fluffy towels. That piece of pottery brings back memories of my first Rolling Stones concert. Hell, all of those Rolling Stones CDs are MINE. And, of course, are those my books or yours?
In The Squid And The Whale, when husband and wife Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney start dividing their possessions, you feel both fascinated and uncomfortable. I gotta tell you, Daniels and Linney are so brilliant in this film that you feel like one of their kids. Take me, take me.
Director-screenwriter Noah Baumbach based the movie on his own childhood. You salute his courage in bringing up what must certainly be painful memories. Baumbach has filled his film with the sting of recognition. Emotional gamesmanship? You better believe theres emotional gamesmanship.
Dad Bernard Berkman (Daniels) is a failed novelist. He teaches writing at Brooklyn College. A general lack of success has made him bitter, so hes prone to making revisionist comments about literature and culture. Hes convinced that A Tale Of Two Cities is minor Dickens, a comment he tosses off at the dinner table the way most people say pass the salt. And after the separation from his wife, he starts reading detective novels, dismissively noting that for pulp writing, Elmore Leonard isnt so bad. While watching Daniels, I kept thinking about some of my college English professors who talked that very same language of the literary put-down.
Eventually, mom Joan (Linney) will wear her infidelity on her sleeve. A bright, well-read woman, she is especially devoted to her two sons, 16-year old Walt and 12-year old Frank, but that doesnt stop her from carrying on an affair with the younger childs tennis instructor, nicely played with smarmy insouciance by William Baldwin. The Berkman family lives on a tree-lined block in the leafy Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Its an intellectual house where books and ideas thrive, even as dads bitterness leads to questionable advice to the boys about life and love. The movie is set in the 1980s before cell phones and Game Boys and VCRs. Kids escaped into books. The Berkmans arent a family that watches television.
When we first enter the film, the kettle of discontent has been placed on the fire. And all four members of the family are going to stir the pot. The sons are caught in smack dab in the middle of the firing range. They each find themselves taking sides without really knowing it or understanding it. They become little parents. Their own battles are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. Dad moves into a place a couple of blocks away, and the boys will split time equally between the two parents. The feel of everyones exhaustion is palpable. The actors playing the sons are exceptional. Walt is acted by Jesse Eisenberg, and Frank by Owen Kline, who is the real-life son of actor Kevin Kline and actress Phoebe Cates.
If theres a villain in the movie, it could be Bernard, but is pretentious behavior and intellectual snobbery really grounds for booing and hissing? Director Baumbach goes much deeper than that. He creates a dance of mutual repulsion around this disintegrating family. There are so many layers of mood and emotion that as an audience member, you cant really hate any of the characters. Bernard may give dreadful coming-of-age advice to his sons, but theres still a real sense of pride in his accomplishments and a genuine love for his children. Is it false pride? You can just feel his belief that hes doing right by everyone, regardless of the swirling anxiety that flings the family around like fragile teacups. Walt, who is the Baumbach character, unquestioningly adores his father. Therefore, his mothers to blame for the chaos. Over time, Walt becomes the teenage equivalent of a brat. Frank may be a youngster, but hes amazingly perceptive. He thinks his father is a phony. Hes on his moms side.
On one level, The Squid and the Whale is about missed communication. Throughout this finely tuned 80-minute movie, the characters arent connecting the way they used to. Mistakes are made. Words and deeds that might have been acceptable in the past, now damage psyches. Theres so much pent-up resentment that you can virtually see the eggshells on which everyone is walking. Walt has a misguided romantic interest in someone, so dad invites her into his home. Mom gets particularly edgy about whose night it is to have the boys. Franks spirit drifts into emptiness. His angst takes a self-destructive form. He plays out his inner demons in the form of masturbating in the schoolhouse.
One of the very smart things about The Squid And The Whale is that although we clearly see that divorce is destructive, it isnt condemned. Sometimes divorce is the only answer. The participants become vulnerable to the worst kind of raw emotions. They are damaged. Theres confusion, even desperation. Kids ask questions, especially why. They wonder if they did something wrong. The answer is no, of course not.
The title The Squid And The Whale is a mystery until the end of the film and Ill keep the secret. But I will write this: Its a great title for a terrific movie. By Michael Calleri
ALT Movie Editor
Whenever anybody complains to me that movies arent any good, I ask them what theyve seen lately. Usually the response consists of overwrought major studio pictures. And this year, the thud of falling big release balloons is especially heavy. I generally and gently tell the complainer that there really are good movies out there, although for the most part they arent being made by fat cats and filmmakers beholden to bankers and shareholders. Theres an air of desperation in Hollywood, and it isnt just bitchy television wives. You cant make quality movies by committee. You just cant. You cant make quality films that are programmed and tinkered with to appeal to every major demographic. You just cant. But oh my, how they keep on trying.