The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and the Whale

Film review by: Witney Seibold

 

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            As children, everyone thinks that their parents are Olympian. Infallible. Perfect asexual beings that are our primary and only specimen of the adult world. Perhaps you begin growing up when you finally come to see that your parents are not gods, but merely people like you. Complete with foibles, personality flaws, bad habits, regrets, doubts, sexual drives, and perhaps even bad advice.

            The divorcing parents that are the subject of Noah Baumbach’s new drama The Squid and the Whale are deeply flawed people. Joan (Laura Linney, as solid as ever) is an emerging writer who has had several affairs and can’t allow her husband to stand in her way. Is she being selfish? Yes, a bit, especially as the kids get caught up in the messy divorce. Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a failing author and teacher, is functional and smart and  narcissistic and boorish and possesses the kind of know-it-all snooty snobbery that most adolescents mistake for intellectualism. He gives bad advice to his teenage son out of his own regrets for not messing around when he was young (“play the field, son”). He doesn’t seem to notice that a divorce is about the entire family, and not just about how inconvenienced he is. Bernard is a wholly engaging character, despite his repellant traits, probably because I’ve met a number of people like him.

            The poor boys get the brunt of the pain of the divorce. They are suddenly shunted between houses multiple times during the week. They try to calmly take in the new logistics of it all, but are both breaking down. The elder, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) fumbles with a relationship of his own, but breaks up with her for reasons unclear even to him (“I thought I could do better.”). The younger son, Frank (Owen Kline) suffers quietly, and acts out hugely by drinking huge amounts of beer and masturbating in public. It’s painful film to watch, and it’s utterly, utterly real.

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            The title refers to a famous exhibit in the New York Museum of Natural History in which the two leviathans struggle, life size, up on the wall. Our parents separating can be like seeing that as a young child. Larger than life behemoths fighting. It’s awe inspiring and terrifying. By the end, nothing is resolved; the pain will indeed continue, the adults are the same people they were at the outset, but we at least have a small glimpse of maturity. We see, ultimately, Walt’s first step to becoming an adult. The film is much more than a turgid divorce drama, but an engaging and skillful and tasteful look at real life human angst. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

October 14th, Samuel Goldwyn Films

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Published in: on January 30, 2009 at 1:46 am  Leave a Comment  

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