Bernard and Joan Berkman, the mother and father of the family in The Squid and the Whale, are the kind of parents who may spur their children on to great success or create crippling neuroses that a lifetime of therapy won’t relieve. Possibly both. Bernard and Joan are part of a particular strand of Baby Boomer, the intellectuals who, in their youth, took refuge from the contentious 1960s in an insulated bourgeois intelligentsia that allowed them to pursue their own solipsistic interests without being required to engage with much of real life. They remained emotionally locked in the final stage of adolescence, self-absorbed and disdainful of the world, and when they had their own children they treated them as they did adults — as potentially amusing people to whom they had no particular responsibility. Their job in life was to follow their own whimsical inclinations, with little thought of the consequences.
There are still people like Bernard and Joan on campuses across the country; I knew some of them when I was in college, the parents of friends of mine who had elected to go to the same school where their parents taught, staying within the insular cocoon in which they had spent their whole lives. These parents were worldly and erudite in their way; they were multilingual and had traveled extensively and were engaged in politics and the arts, but they had never mastered the kind of skills that far less educated people — truck drivers and repairmen and church secretaries and registered nurses — took for granted. They could talk for hours about Pound and Eliot or 14th-century Netherlandish altarpieces or the decline of the Hapsburgs, but they didn’t know how to change a tire or get a red wine stain out of the carpet or balance a checkbook. More importantly, they had never acquired the ability to act as adults and to allow their children to be children, and to set boundaries for them. I envied my friends for having parents so much more educated and accomplished than my own, but I also felt sorry for them. They had grown up too fast and not grown up at all; they had no sense of the difference between the behavior of children and adults, so they could be very snobbish and superior to anyone less sophisticated while at the same time acting like small children, throwing tantrums to get what they wanted.
When you’ve lived most of your life locked in your own head, the disappointments of middle age hit hard. You catch a glimpse of the real world outside that protective cocoon and realize how little your life has matched up to the expectations of your youth, and you go a little crazy — you have an affair with a student or move to Alaska to become a deep-sea fisherman or join a religious cult. For Joan Berkman (Laura Linney), middle age means a series of affairs with neighborhood men and the beginning of her own intellectual and creative autonomy — she steps out of her novelist husband’s shadow and writes a book of her own. She begins to see herself as a being independent of husband and children and to explore the possibilities of this independence, never mind that the children still need a mother. For Bernard (Jeff Daniels in a thick, salt-and-pepper beard) it’s worse, possibly the end of his creative life. He has fired, or maybe been dropped by (his version of events is apocryphal), his longtime literary agent, and he can find no one interested in his new book. His talent may have atrophied or fallen out of fashion; we’re not sure based on what we see but, either way, he no longer has the thing that had for so long provided his sense of self. He’s at sea, unable to figure out what to do and too ashamed to admit to anyone what’s happened.
The Squid and the Whale opens in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1986, with Joan and Bernard playing doubles tennis with their two sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline, son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), who’s perhaps 12. Bernard is fiercely competitive; he can’t stand to lose to anyone, ever, and he and Walt, who emulates him in every way, play aggressively against Joan and Frank: “If you can, try to hit it at your mother’s backhand,” he instructs Walt, “It’s pretty weak.” The game concludes when Bernard hits Joan with the ball and they begin quarreling while Frank and Walt look on.
Soon enough Bernard and Joan’s passive-aggressive attacks on each other lead to a family meeting where they announce that they’re separating. They’ve worked out an elaborate joint-custody agreement in which Bernard takes the kids on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, Joan gets them the rest of the week, and they alternate Thursdays. (Parity is essential for Bernard and Joan, but they don’t have enough common sense or concern for their children’s comfort and stability to make arrangements for them to stay in the same house on consecutive days.) Bernard informs his sons that he’s rented “an elegant house across the park” in what he calls “the filet of the neighborhood.” (This bizarre locution is a pet phrase of his; he later describes Elmore Leonard as “the filet of the crime genre.”) When they reach this Xanadu, it turns out to be large but dilapidated, with cracked, stained paint and almost no furniture. Bernard has made some token efforts at creating a home for his sons — in Frank’s room he’s hung a tennis poster, but it’s the wrong player, not the one Frank idolizes, and he’s gotten him a desk where he can do his homework, but it’s an antiquated, too-small classroom desk and, what’s more, it’s a lefty.
The boys are reluctant to settle into their new way of living; they’re angry and confused about the separation, and they take sides and assign blame. Walt, of course, holds his mother responsible, particularly when he learns of her affairs. In a squirmy, difficult scene, he confronts Joan and essentially calls her a whore; afterward he will hardly speak to her and avoids staying with her whenever possible. Frank, who shares none of his father’s interests and doesn’t revere him as Walt does, takes Joan’s side and longs to spend more time with her and less with Bernard. When his father tells him that his tennis coach, Ivan (William Baldwin), is a philistine and explains that a philistine is “a guy who’s not interested in books and interesting films and things,” Walt declares himself one too. He begins to act out in funny-creepy ways, masturbating at school and smearing his semen across a shelf of library books or a locker door, getting drunk when no one’s around. Which is practically all the time — for all their declamations of love for their children and their desire to spend as much time as possible with them, Bernard and Joan show little interest in the boys when they are around. Bernard uses them as a captive audience for his pontificating, making pompous assessments of writers they’ve never read and have no interest in, habitually name-dropping, though the names mean nothing to the kids. It’s as though at some early stage Bernard had perfected his conversation for faculty cocktail parties and got stuck in that mode, with no other way to communicate. He certainly can’t communicate his emotions; he doesn’t even seem able to locate them, as though feeling would be unseemly in an intellectual.
While dealing with the dissolution of his parents’ relationship, Walt is tentatively beginning a courtship of his own with a girl named Sophie (Halley Feiffer) a classmate who’s cute in a plain sort of way and who is willing, even eager, to overlook his strangeness. With only his father for a model, Walt, too, has never mastered ordinary conversation; he parrots his father’s unquestionable pronouncements until he runs out of them and then has nothing more to say. When he’s asked to respond to something on his own, he’s at a loss. Sophie brushes aside his social awkwardness and borrowed pretensions; she doesn’t understand why, but in some visceral way she likes this boy, and nothing will interfere with that. But when Lili (Anna Paquin), Bernard’s flirtatious, sexy creative writing student, whose stories are squirmily sexually frank, gets evicted and comes to live in Bernard’s house, Walt wonders if he can’t trade up. Bernard, too, is attracted to Lili and, like many a hero-worshipping co-ed before, she encourages his attraction, giving him suggestive smiles and dropping innuendo into their conversation (the casting here is delightfully perverse; nine years ago Daniels played Paquin’s father in Fly Away Home).
The writer/director of The Squid and the Whale is Noah Baumbach, who I’ve admired since his debut film, Kicking and Screaming, 10 years ago. Baumbach is one of the most literate of the younger directors, and this comes through in his smart dialogue, which is like normal speech, only heightened, and his films’ unformulaic structure. His characters may be weak or deluded or self-destructive, but he doesn’t condescend to them or offer easy lessons; he explores their worlds, lets us get to know them and draw our own conclusions. He based the film loosely on his and his brother’s own experiences — his parents are the writers Jonathon Baumbach and Georgia Brown, who divorced when he was around Walt’s age. He clearly cares about these characters, but he doesn’t give us obvious hooks to connect with them. Each one is complex, prickly, and in many ways unlikable, but, in their weaknesses and blind spots, all too human.
Baumbach has assembled the film in an unusual way, shooting, with cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, on Super 16 film rather than 35mm so that he could get the looseness and intimacy of a handheld camera without the shakiness of a heavier 35mm one, and his editor, Tim Streeto, has cut the film so that each scene lasts not a second longer than necessary, heightening the drama beyond what you might expect from such ordinary events. It’s a surprising decision and a little disorienting at first — this is the kind of movie that’s often so listless and banal that it’s hard to stay awake — but it zips along in a tight 88 minutes, aided by a soundtrack of well-selected folk-rock of Joan and Bernard’s generation and cheesy ’80s pop hits.
The Squid and the Whale invites comparison to movies like The Ice Storm and Imaginary Heroes but more so to the this-is-the-way-we-live-now novels of the ’70s and ’80s about divorce and adultery among the intellectual class. The essential difference is that this movie, while embracing a complex, difficult subject, has rich situational humor and a healthy sense of proportion. It doesn’t condescend to its characters but it doesn’t take them too seriously either; it’s like a satire of all those weighty, self-important tomes about anomie in New Haven and Cambridge and Northampton. This isn’t a tragedy, the film seems to say, this is life; let’s deal with it and not be babies.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()