(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
Is there any smarter a screenwriter working in Hollywood today than Noah Baumbach? After all, whether it comes to the pain of 25-year-olds not ready to enter the real world yet (Kicking and Screaming), the masochistic pleasures of intellectuals who date (Mr. Jealousy), or the sheer lunacy of an absurdist underwater adventure (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in that case directed by his buddy Wes Anderson), Baumbach has the magical ability to combine deeply uncomfortable and intimate truths about the world with a hipster weariness over it all, as well as a plain laugh-out-loud sensibility to the entire thing. His scripts make you both wince and applaud at how close they strike to true human nature; they are records of real people who happen to have never actually existed, just like all the best movies in history are.
So how much should we salivate exactly over Baumbach's latest, 2005's divorce dramedy The Squid and the Whale? Because first of all, it's a deadly accurate look at a snotty New York intellectual family in the 1980s, and of the uniquely hellish ways that family falls apart because of a divorce, precisely because of the parents being snotty New York intellectuals; but it's also an autobiographical tale, as Baumbach has publicly confirmed many times, with the father based on his actual father Jonathan Baumbach (which the most hardcore intellectuals out there will know already as the author of several award-winning books in the '70s, as well as the recipient of an NEA grant, Guggenheim Fellowship and more), and the mother based on his real mother, former Village Voice columnist Georgia Brown. And let's face it -- that if this movie really is as autobiographical as he intimates, it's a miracle that the younger Baumbach even made it to adulthood without being some smackhead in the Lower East Side, much less the creator of several Oscar-nominated films like he actually is.
Because that's the very first thing to understand about The Squid and the Whale, and is what makes the movie fascinating instead of terminally bitter, is that the father character Bernard (named after Baumbach's dad's real-life mentor Bernard Malamud) is not a metaphorical stand-in for all intellectual fathers, but rather a special and unique kind of monster unto himself, a worse father than most men who exist whether they're intellectuals or not; a man who treats his own children with the dispassionate cruelty he treats competitive colleagues, who is receiving hints all the time of all the ways he is profoundly screwing with the heads of everyone around him, yet ignores the hints in his obsessive quest to be right about every single situation, to blame his waning career on anyone but himself. As astonishingly played here by an unrecognizable Jeff Daniels, Bernard both reflects all those traits we intellectuals like the least about ourselves (the arrogance, the self-importance, the obliviousness), and pushes well past the upper ethical limits that most of us have, to the point of being an unequivocally bad husband and father, a fact that even he himself can't deny by the end.
It is in the '80s Brooklyn environment of such a family (including the much more level-headed but still deeply flawed wife Joan [Laura Linney, stunning as always]) that we explore the real subjects of this movie -- high-school senior Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and early adolescent Frank (Owen Kline, who by the way happens to be the real-life son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), who I suspect are two different autobiographical reflections of Noah himself in the '80s, even though Walt is clearly the closest. In fact, Walt is a budding little intellectual himself, at the age which is officially the most annoying in life; when he thinks he knows everything about the world even though he actually knows nothing, too immature yet to be able to admit it, who goes around referencing books he's never read, talking about the "minor works" of certain authors without fully understanding what the term even means. It's courageous of Baumbach to write an autobiographical character like this, because in some aspects he actually comes off even worse than his father, or at least deliberately cruel at points versus his father mostly being clueless; but as Baumbach reminds us throughout the story, half of Walt's genes are his mother's as well, and Walt himself is just as capable of love and joy and an ease about the world as he is intellectual cruelty, depending on which adults are having the greatest influence over him at any given moment.
Because that's ultimately what The Squid and the Whale is about; of the supernaturally powerful effects that adults can have over children, often without the adults even realizing it, and how so much of what a person is like as an adult is dependent on which aspects of their personalities were nurtured as a child. See, the two kids in the family end up choosing sides in the divorce themselves, with Walt of course siding with his father based on only a half-baked idea of what actually happened (with Walt convinced that the divorce is happening because of his mom not being supportive enough of his dad's "brilliant but misunderstood later works"), while Frank ends up siding with his mom, sick of the way both his dad and brother intellectually browbeat all the people around them into submission. (In fact, keep an eye out for the scene where the father and son discuss what a "philistine" is -- it's a microcosm of the entire movie itself.)
The casually cruel things that the parents say about each other during the divorce, even when they don't mean for them to affect their children, do affect their children in a frightfully subconscious way; and of course it also causes all kinds of acting-out behavior, most of it in this case centered around the budding sexual awakening that teenage boys go through, which is easily (easily) the most truthfully cringe-inducing element of the entire movie, especially to anyone who was ever a precocious and horny teenage boy themselves. How else, after all, to describe 13-year-old Frank's newfound discovery of the pleasures of alcohol and orgasms, which he has plenty of time to partake in because of officially now being a "latchkey kid?" Or the way he secretly smears his semen on the lockers of girls he likes, because of having such an incredibly crude and beginner's understanding of his own sexuality? Or that all the relevant scenes concerning this topic are cut to the actual soundtrack of infamous '80s masturbatory movie Risky Business, making me want to stand up in my apartment during the movie and scream, "Brilliant, Baumbach, F---ING BRILLIANT!"
This is what I mean by Baumbach's scripts being so close to the human spirit; because he is constantly remembering little things that the rest of us forget, tiny details of life that many of us though we were the only ones to experience. And that of course is what I mean by cringe-inducing as well, in that I at least saw a whole lot more of myself in all these characters than I wanted to, and am now infinitely glad I watched the movie by myself instead of with a lover or (God forbid) family members. (Although make no mistake, I had nowhere near the kind of childhood as the one shown in this movie, and my parents are in fact still happily married.) No, what I mean is that I see in Walt the kid I used to be, so yearning for experience and respect but utterly unable to understand how to achieve them, who can actually rationalize such things as stealing other people's songs with the justification of, "It seemed like the kind of song I would write if I had thought of it first, which is why I thought it was okay to just put my name on it instead." Oh God, I think I actually did that in high school once, a memory I had almost completely repressed because of it being so painful and embarrassing; and I don't even want to start getting into the other things seen in this movie that I was guilty of as a teenage boy myself. (And it doesn't help, of course, that Baumbach and I are only six months apart in age, making Walt the exact same age as me in 1986, the year this movie takes place.)
Make no mistake -- unlike Baumbach's other movies, this is not a comedy with dark elements but rather a drama with some funny parts, a sometimes horrific drama that at points showcases the absolute worst ways that humans can emotionally treat other humans. But at the same time, it's also a powerful look at how all those divorces back in the '70s and '80s affected an entire generation of kids, kids who are now adults and have kids of their own. And it's a highly entertaining film as well, I want to be clear, one that will have you deeply rooting for all these people to get over their pain, which thankfully does start to happen a little by the end. And perhaps most importantly of all, it's a cautionary film as well, a plea for parents to always be extra-careful when it comes to how they behave around their children. Even if science wasn't confirming this more and more with each passing year (which it is, by the way), we all know in our hearts just how powerfully we are affected as kids by the adults who are in our lives; as Baumbach so effectively reminds us here, it can literally sometimes mean the difference between a well-adjusted kid and a 13-year-old alcoholic chronic public masturbator. It's something to keep in mind the next time you're tempted to make a reference in front of children to your "no-good ex-wife b--ch."
Out of 10:
--Bill Murray was actually the first one cast as Bernard, but then backed out, citing a need to take a break from all the heavy indie character dramas he had been doing. And as big a fan I am of Murray (and I am, I am), I have to say that I'm glad he backed out here; he would've been just too funny to pull this character off, with Daniels instead getting it so perfect that he literally becomes creepy by the time the movie is over.
--How did Owen Kline end up playing Frank, by the way? Well, see, Baumbach is married to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, a woman I've gone on about at length here before; and Leigh's real-life best friend is Phoebe Cates, going all the way back to their work together in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
--And by the way, the rejection letter Bernard gets is on the letterhead of International Creative Management (ICM), the agency that represents both Daniels and Linney in real life.
Best viewed: while trying desperately not to nervously chuckle, proving exactly what kind of disgusting little kid you actually were.
Next on my queue list: Primer, the 2004 no-budget independent heady science-fiction thriller, which has perhaps the most universal set of praise at the Internet Movie Database that I've ever seen.