Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney
Country: United States
Stories about divorce and the disintegration of a family unit and the trauma for all involved are rarely (if they ever are) nice, but few eschew sugarcoating quite as thoroughly as Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, a film in which none of the members of the family escape unscathed from criticism and which is relentless in the way that it exposes and dissects the flaws and pretentions of its characters. Laid bare like that, the characters are almost endearing in their intense vulnerability – or they would be, if they didn’t act like such assholes so often. But the honesty of that is what makes The Squid and the Whale such a strong piece of work, telling its story of a family dealing with the pain, resentment, and confusion of divorce in a way that is unforgiving and forgiving in equal measure. Embraced as a great film when it first came out in 2005, The Squid and the Whale has aged incredibly well, and its combination of tenderness and bitterness has only become more captivating with time.
When The Squid and the Whale opens, the family is still together, though the problems in the marriage have grown so large that they’ve graduated from fissures to a full-blow canyon. The family consists of Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a once well-regarded author who hasn’t been published in some time and tries to mask his insecurity about that by dominating – intellectually, physically, emotionally – those around him; Joan (Laura Linney), who was at one time likely awestruck by Bernard, but has long since come to see him for the selfish narcissist that he is and is now embarking on a writing career of her own; 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), who idolizes his father, parroting his opinions and mirroring Bernard’s dismissiveness of Joan’s ambitions; and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), who would rather emulate his dopey but good-natured tennis instructor Ivan (William Baldwin) than follow in the intellectual footsteps of his parents and brother.
Initially when Bernard and Joan split up, it’s decided that Walt and Frank will split their time equally between the homes of each parent. However, once Bernard passive-aggressively reveals that Joan had multiple long-term affairs, Walt decides that his allegiance is strictly with his father and refuses to spend time at his mother’s house, while Frank continues to shuffle between both houses and, at his request to Joan, gets the details of her extramarital affairs. Both boys are deeply affected by the divorce as well as the subsequent series of revelations that their parents aren’t exactly the people they took it for granted that they were, but they react to it in different ways. Frank, whose relationship with Bernard was already strained because Bernard doesn’t really know how to relate to or communicate with someone who isn’t fawning towards him, and who is probably more than a little confused and anxious about what Joan has revealed to him, acts out sexually by masturbating and then spreading his semen over whatever surface happens to be near him at the time, and pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior in some other ways as well.
Walt’s reaction is slightly more subtle and complex, and the way that Baumbach uses that character to explore and illuminate the others is part of what makes The Squid and the Whale such a rich and rewarding character study. Walt starts out the story firmly on Bernard’s side, even before his parents actually split up, and so identifies with him that rather than forming his own thoughts and opinions, he simply repeats whatever Bernard thinks about anything, which becomes a problem for him firstly because it results in him developing a sort of intellectual entitlement whereby he comes to believe that just thinking that he could do something (like read a certain book and end up with a certain opinion of it, or write a certain song), then it’s basically as if he has done it; and secondly it results in him exposing himself as a fraud because, while he might sound like he knows what he’s talking about on a certain subject, when challenged he demonstrates that he doesn’t. Walt is a real “Jesse Eisenberg type character,” albeit one played by Eisenberg before he had played enough film characters to have a particular “type,” and Eisenberg plays him perfectly. He’s insufferable a lot of the time and casually cruel – so much so that you practically cheer when Linney tells him he’s being “a shit” and finally gives him a slap – but, at the same time, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him because whenever he gets called out for his behavior he just looks so shocked that anyone can see through his façade that instead of hating him for the unearned arrogance with which he carries himself, you instead feel sympathy for him for the fact that he’s making his own life so much harder than it has to be.
The historical war between Bernard and Joan is explored in large part through Walt’s eyes, and though he at first sees things as very cut and dried – blaming Joan and accusing her of abandoning Bernard once he stopped publishing and being “important” – his experiences gradually cause him to shift in his position. Living with Bernard in the absence of Joan and Frank makes him see his father in a different light, as a man who is often selfish and manipulative, whose great insights into art are actually fairly pedestrian (one of his favorite things seems to be distinguishing a work or artist as the “fillet” of its type), and who can behave in a way that is actually fairly embarrassing. There are three moments in particular where Bernard does something and the film pauses to allow Walt’s reaction to blossom as he sees his father in a new light. One is when Bernard takes Walt and his girlfriend out to dinner and has her pay for her portion as opposed to covering the whole bill, as her parents did when they took Walt to dinner; the second is when Walt catches Bernard trying to coerce one of his students into having sex with him; the third is when Walt decides that he’d like to go back to spending half time with each parent, and Bernard tries to lay a guilt trip on him, telling him how lonely he would be and how much he needs Walt’s help, totally bulldozing over what Walt needs and wants. The Squid and the Whale is a story about a family, but it’s also very much a coming-of-age tale about a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, struggling with the realization that his parents are people, with all the complexity and frailty that that entails.
Although it’s seen in large part through Walt’s eyes, the marriage of Bernard and Joan is nevertheless sharply drawn by Baumbach. We only see them now that they’re unhappy, but the film is able to give a sense of what their relationship must have been like when it first started, with Joan as Bernard’s somewhat wide-eyed student, and Bernard (already twice married), still taking that initial adulation for granted and not quite understanding that he’ll have to give support in return if he wants to maintain the relationship (one of the funniest exchanges in the film comes when Bernard lists all the things he believes he did to keep the marriage together, including making dinners, and Joan replies that he never made a dinner. His response? “I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.” Try again Bernard!). Neither Bernard nor Joan gets off easy, but Bernard definitely gets the brunt of the film’s criticism, characterized as a man who sets himself apart on the strength of his intellect and then desperately grasps at others as they start to turn away from him, unable to comprehend that his inclination towards domination has the effect of crushing the other person’s spirit bit by bit and making them hate him. As Bernard, Daniels is truly brilliant, playing him as a sad man who does a lot of things wrong but really, truly, just does not understand why what he’s doing is wrong, and Linney is note-perfect as Joan, who is granted more sympathy by the film but certainly has her flaws. Neither character is particularly fair to the children, to whom they reveal brutal truths whether they’re ready to hear them or not, and they are both guilty of putting their own wants and needs ahead of those of Walt and Frank. But what makes the film so strong is that it doesn’t shy away from that or even excuse it (indeed, right through the end, neither Bernard nor Joan really seems able to assess the emotional damage that they’ve done to the kids), it just lets it be and it gives The Squid and the Whale a stronger ring of truth than many films, and that bracing honesty is a big part of what makes the film so enduring.