Not since To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, has a film sported such an ungainly title as The Squid and the Whale. Yet after having seen it, I cannot imagine it being called anything else. It is utterly appropriate for a film that is so determined to be different. Baumbach made a small splash ten years ago with the well-reviewed indie Kicking and Screaming (not to be confused with the Will Ferrell psycho-soccer comedy that came out last year). Since then, however, Baumbach has fallen off the map, with a Steven Soderbergh-esque extended sophomore slump. This seemed to change late last year, when there arose a lot of positive critical noise about his latest work, The Squid and the Whale, despite the fact that it played in only a handful of art-house theatres.
The story focuses on the disintegration of the Berkman family. Mom (Laura Linney) and Dad (Jeff Daniels) are getting divorced and their sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) almost instantaneously take sides, amidst their own mixed emotions and identity crises. Walt is dad’s son, while Frank aligns himself with mom. The film is set in 1986, yet oddly, the costumes, furnishings, cars and hairstyles all feel straight out of the 70s. It seems like the same sort of deliberately retro choice that Wes Anderson made in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. This makes sense, because Anderson (a pal of Baumbach’s) produced this film and Baumbach was involved with Anderson’s last outing, 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
There’s a lot that’s interesting about this film, yet many of these elements eventually wear on the audience’s patience. The film has indie-itis, a disease plaguing independent films of the past few years, wherein oddness is expected to equal brilliance and unique storytelling (Napoleon Dynamite is the most tiresome example of this). Ultimately, in The Squid and the Whale, as in so many other films, the quirkiness becomes overly precious and acts as a mask for holes in the story.
Credit Baumbach for securing a top-notch cast. Daniels has his best part in years and shows just how little he’s gotten to do in phoned-in roles like his minor part in last year’s Good Night, and Good Luck. Daniels plays a thoroughly unlikable guy, but his pathos is never far from the surface, which keeps his performance engaging. Linney is good, but her role is frustratingly underwritten. She comes off as a nicer person and a better parent than Daniels, but we never really find out what makes her tick. Eisenberg is ideal as Walt, a part in line with his good work in Rodger Dodger. Kline, who is the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, is a real find—projecting an intelligence and maturity in Frank beyond his years. However, when Frank begins acting out sexually midway through the film, it’s downright creepy, and part of the discomfort comes from knowing an actor this young was asked to do this. Oscar winner Anna Paquin shows up briefly as a Lolita-esque student of Daniels’ washed up professor. I like Paquin and I think she’s got great potential, but the part is thankless and she comes off even blanker than her underused role in Almost Famous (if you’re struggling to remember her in that movie, that’s exactly my point).
Paquin and Linney’s underused talents highlight the main drawback of The Squid and the Whale: it doesn’t know how to develop the potential it has. Baumbach has a unique take on family life by making the Berkmans literary intellectual snobs. After awhile, though, it just becomes an overused device. The film is antiseptic, never engaging our emotions as fully as similarly themed films like American Beauty and The Ice Storm. At one hour and fifteen minutes, it feels like an unfinished rough draft of a better movie. When the film finally reveals the titular metaphor, it is both overstated and underwhelming. I suppose that’s the unique failure of The Squid and the Whale: it bludgeons its audience with subtlety.
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