Squid and the Whale
I was even less excited to watch this film.

Theatrical Release Date: 10/05/2005
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney

Treading its head above water in art house cinemas across the nation is writer/director Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale.” It’s a tale about divorce and its effect on the children involved in 1986 Brooklyn. Anyone sense that Baumbach had something to work out from his past?

While I don’t mean to be glib about someone else’s pain, what struck me almost immediately about this film is how autobiographical it seems. In checking out his bio, Baumbach is from New York and his father is a novelist … just like the father in the film. I could start writing a psychology paper now but I’ll just knock this review out and move on.

The basic plot is that the parents, nicely played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, have finally acknowledged their marriage is a sham and decide to separate. Daniels is a former successful novelist, teaching college literature and trying to regain his elite status while Linney is an aspiring writer who is just realizing her successes. This, along with some infidelity and clear personality mismatches, leads to the break up.

The children, Frank and Walt, are caught in the middle as so often happens in these situations. Each act out in their own way and choose a parent to rally behind as the separation is a bitter one full of custody disputes and name calling.

Frank (Owen Kline) is the younger sibling and can’t understand why his parents are breaking up and blames himself. Aside from his prolific use of swear words, he also starts to masturbate in public and smear the ‘results’ on whatever’s nearby. This entire story-arc felt contrived and like it was put there to shock the audience. While I like hearing kids drop f-bombs like they’re going out of style, I hate feeling patronized. This further withdrew me from sympathizing with the characters.

Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) tries to emulate his father’s arrogant faux-intellectualism and botches a relationship as a result, all the while being jealous of his father’s indiscretions with one of his students (Anna Paquin) who, all too neatly as far as plot devices go, moves into dad’s new house when she is kicked out of her apartment.

All of the performances are excellent, even William Baldwin‘s portrayal of a never-was tennis pro who ends up dating Linney post-separation. This film does not falter due to the actors. Also on a positive note, Baumbach’s use of mostly handheld cameras and what I believe to be 16 mm film stock created an almost home movie quality to the film that worked well.

The festival and awards critics’ circles have been very kind to Baumbach and he has won a few awards for this movie, but much like the works of Wes Anderson who was a producer for the film, I did not connect and found myself unsatisfied with the end result.

Seeing Anderson’s name come up at the end as a producer made me realize why I had struggled so much to enjoy the film and allows me to make the following conclusion: If you liked “The Royal Tenenbaums”, this film is for you. I was indifferent, which is how I find “The Squid and the Whale”. It’s a style thing, not a merit issue.

This felt like a script that had been so carefully rewritten time and time again that it succumbed to anecdotal add-ons and obscured the original story. Mix that in with the Anderson-esque style of delivery all of the characters use and this is one disinterested moviegoer.

“The Squid and the Whale” gets a ‘1 and a 1’ which makes 2 out of 5. I seem to be in the minority on the film’s merit but when you’re making clones, you’re going to break a few embryos. Such is life.