The Squid and the Whale Review
The Squid and the Whale is one of the most endearing, truthful and emotionally-accurate films on the subject of divorce, and the breakdown of the family unit, that I've ever seen. It will strike a chord with many audiences on a variety of levels, not least because it is a wonderfully funny and acutely-observed human drama. Working from the fairly simple – yet nonetheless difficult – story of a married couple deciding to go there separate ways after two decades of marriage, writer/director Noah Baumbach has accomplished more with his feature film debut than his creative partner Wes Anderson has managed in a four-film career.
Set in New York during the '80s, Baumbach's film is not so much a dissection of the era's quirks or fallibilities, but rather a honed examination of what exactly constitutes family and how a relationship can, perhaps spontaneously, collapse. Although Baumbach has since admitted that much of the script is based on his own experiences, I am sure that many "children of divorce", or the divorcees themselves, will be able to draw a lot of familiarity from his framework. Granted, Bernard (played superbly by the vastly underrated Jeff Daniels) may seem delightfully eccentric, but then again aren't we all? It is a difficult task to successfully capture a believable character in 100 pages of script, so the writer must choose to highlight – or accentuate – a select number of characteristics that the audience can then interpret and collectively develop. With Bernard, his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies project his deep-rooted love for his children and explain his inability to communicate with Joan, his soon-to-be-ex (played by the wonderful Laura Linney). Baumbach is of course fully aware of the irony that is inherent within his leading character – and presumably his own father – since Bernard is a critically-acclaimed writer who is pathologically unable to communicate with those around him. Even Frank (Owen Kline on top form), the younger of the two boys, starts to exhibit similar problems and perhaps that's another dangerous side effect of divorce.
But it is through the eyes of seventeen year-old Walt (Roger Dodger's Jesse Eisenberg) that the narrative unfolds. Criss-crossing between his reactions to the dissolution of his parents' marriage, his feelings towards two very different women and his attempts to "make something" of himself, Eisenberg is aware that he must lend a hefty dose of believability to his character in order to truly sell the theme's central message. We all live in the shadows of our parents, of our peers, of our idols, and it is how we deal with this provocation that determines the path ahead: when Walt tries to pass off Pink Floyd's "Hey You" as his own song during a school talent contest, he's attempting to bask in a glory that was previously afforded to his father in the years gone by. But Baumbach is not just talking about the power of writing, the power of language; he is trying to highlight the humour in everyday life and the way in which we can resort to the menial at a time of apparent crisis. As the family is discussing their future, separated prospects, Walt sincerely asks about the future of the family cat. Similarly, the questions, doubts and fears that Bernard and Joan share throughout their divorce are broached with a mixture of sensitivity and good humour; how soon can you move on? How do you walk away from a 20-year marriage? Is it selfish to think of yourself, and not the kids, for once?
Whilst The Squid and the Whale may be superficially similar to Wes Anderson's work, at least visually – namely a retro setting, the characters' love for the weird and wonderful and strong widescreen compositions – Baumbach is a very different filmmaker when it comes to projecting emotion and conflict. Instead of focusing on the farcical elements of their lives, the eccentricities take on a peripheral role and Baumbach is not afraid to use hand-held cameras to capture the unfolding drama. As a result, the film feels a lot more real – and certainly more palpable – than anything in the Anderson canon. It is important, however, that Baumbach is able to be recognised as a filmmaker in his own right and the warm critical praise that was bestowed on The Squid and the Whale was most definitely deserved. Yes, it is perhaps too short, too fleeting, but I'd rather have a solid, thought-provoking film over an overlong, emotionally-confused mess any day; and for that reason I tip my hat to Noah Baumbach for making one of the best films of 2005.
Released long before the film even reaches UK cinemas, this Canadian R1 DVD is presented on disc care of Sony Pictures Classics. The menus are well designed and easy to navigate; English and French subtitles are provided during the main feature.
For a relatively low-budget independent film, the transfer is very good indeed. Colours – which, due to the director's vision, appear slightly washed-out to create a grainier, period feel – are reproduced excellently and no digital artefacts were visible. The soundtrack, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, is clear and I found no problems whatsoever, especially since the film is dialogue-driven and offers no real challenge for a surround-sound setup.
A slightly unconventional director's commentary from Noah Baumbach kicks off the bonus materials – instead of talking over the film itself, he instead chooses to discuss the film's production over a series of stills. As a result his commentary only lasts for about 45 minutes, but he offers very valuable insight nonetheless. Meanwhile, a conversation between Baumbach and Philip Lopate lasts for 40 minutes and is again well worth a watch/listen; a collection of (brief) cast interviews and a handful of trailers round off the package.
One of the surprise critical hits of last year, The Squid and the Whale is an intelligent, witty and ultimately endearing tragi-comedy that hit me like a breath of fresh air. Highly recommended.