The Squid and the Whale: 4 Way Street

On Film / Essays — Nov 25, 2016

The Squid and the Whale comes at the viewer from all directions, cross-hatching its way forward at a furious pace in short scenes that arrive with a burst—it feels like a gestural transmission of a deeply personal state of mind. A killingly funny memory piece about the breakup of a family, this is also a real New York street movie, with some kind of kinship with the pre-Code city films made in Hollywood in the early 1930s. Like Night Nurse or Union Depot, titles that most assuredly were not on Noah Baumbach’s mind when he shot his breakthrough third feature (fourth if you count the misadventure of 1997’s Highball), Squid thrives on repetitions and refrains of routine urban journeys: walks past the black-painted iron fences fronting the brownstones in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and Ditmas Park neighborhoods, angry car trips around the block in search of a parking space, trudges into darkened, book-lined living rooms for family sit-downs, or up crooked wooden staircases to bedroom hideaways. Every scene is based on a solid visual idea, covered in handheld linear compositions that angle into shallow space, sometimes nonchalantly picking up such hilarious visual details as the crummy The Mother and the Whore poster that the father has taped to the wall in his miserable new house.

The film’s pace and structure seem to grow organically out of the characters’ emotional impulses, which layer on top of one another like cards hurled down in a ferocious game of Scopa. The older son, playing devotedly to his father, remarks at the dinner table that he has been assigned A Tale of Two Cities in school, and the father dismisses it as “minor Dickens” (from the son’s face, we see that this was the expected response), prompting the ignored mother to chime in that he should decide for himself, a suggestion that is subsequently rolled over by more opinions offered as pronouncements. Every scene involving more than one person has this breathless effect, and everything happens a little too quickly for the kids to fully understand it. The adults, drawn with unusual frankness and realism, often revert to working the situation to their advantage in order to sidestep the pain before them—a novelty in movies, I believe. The mother speaks caringly but often too openly and sometimes too blithely, perhaps entranced by her liberation from her overbearing soon-to-be ex-husband. The defensive father, on the other hand, uses his adult authority to create an ideal audience in his older son, his “encouragement” almost always edging into the autocratic, imbuing a fragile adolescent with a sense of ridiculously premature intellectual superiority. The father’s most poignant moments arrive whenever he stops talking and is left face-to-face with himself.

At the time, Jeff Daniels seemed like an unlikely choice for the role of Bernard, the father. He had, up to that point, been generally known for the sunniness of his screen presence and the borderline oafishness of his delivery (well over the border in Dumb & Dumber). He brings an unusual dimension to the role, a sort of innate defensiveness (as if Bernard had always just lost his place in line), and the actor goes at his task with a bravery that digs into the character’s grating coarseness and profound disappointment that he didn’t turn out to be Philip Roth.

Laura Linney’s Joan, the mother, is a different story, a woman with a newfound sense of freedom that she channels very carefully in the presence of her children and her estranged husband. It’s a matter of gestures and hesitations more than words, and a near-inscrutable attitude toward the emotional turmoil of her sons—she seems to be formulating a novel in her head, careful not to tamper with its real-life model as it unfolds. It’s a quieter performance than Daniels’s, but it’s no less remarkable.

In 2005, when the film was released, Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt and Owen Kline’s Frank seemed like singular character creations for the movies: the children of New York intellectuals, delicate in appearance and tightly wound under the skin, pressed or primed or nudged into multiple directions at once. Eleven years later, the characters and the performers seem that much rarer and more poignant. Baumbach’s film has been justly celebrated, but I’m not sure that his achievement with his two young actors has been properly recognized for its originality or its force. These are not Salinger kids, nor are they Metropolitan preppies, and they are a planet away from Wes Anderson’s Tenenbaums. They are bookish and middle-class, to be sure (“Lots of people like that movie,” shrugs the twelve-year-old Frank when his father explains that he can’t possibly be a “philistine” because he liked Truffaut’s The Wild Child), but they are far from sheltered. They are, finally, every bit as much creatures of the cracked asphalt/bodega/subway world of street-level New York as Mean Streets’ Charlie or the displaced trio of Cassavetes’s Shadows.

Eisenberg’s openhearted gaze, rapid-fire verbalism, and unathletic movement, not to mention his beauty, have become axiomatic over the past decade. At the midway mark, they were recast in more ominous tones by David Fincher in The Social Network. But the actor has never been more heartbreaking than he is here, whether he’s worshipping his father, chastising his mother, or, saddest of all, rejecting the incandescent Sophie (Halley Feiffer). Owen Kline’s seems to be the least remarked of the four central performances, probably because he’s the youngest and his character gets the smallest amount of screen time, but he’s no less affecting. His character is four years younger than Walt, but he’s wiser and tougher, and not quite old enough to be as confused. Few images in recent American cinema are as moving as Frank’s sad, enervated walk to the corner store for some Tylenol to cure a headache. By the way, that’s Frank’s real-life semi-analogue, Baumbach’s brother Nico, introducing Bernard’s sparsely attended college reading.

Most movies about family actually amount to stories of an individual struggle for self-definition. On paper, The Squid and the Whale is no different, and there is no doubt that Walt is the film’s protagonist. But that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it swiftness and clarity of attack (which Baumbach shares with Anderson, his producer and occasional collaborator) create scenes that continue to build in the mind after they’ve finished. The emotional balance is constantly shifting, like a lifeboat for three with four people on it, in which everyone takes turns as stabilizing center, ballast, and excess baggage. At odd moments within its combustible eighty-one-minute running time, the movie suddenly “belongs” to one of the three principal characters other than Walt: to Bernard during flashes of painful realization captured in gut-wrenching close-ups, to Frank as he smears semen across a row of library books or finds himself left alone in his father’s house for days on end, to Joan during even smaller intervals when she seems to be taking the full measure of the unfolding situation as if she were a spectator rather than a participant. The title might very well refer to mother and father, the lithe squid that will always slip away from the massive whale threatening to swallow it whole, but in truth every one of the four major characters takes turns being a squid and a whale. Everyone is simultaneously everyone else’s refuge and monster. That’s why the ending packs such a punch. Eisenberg’s walk into Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History—propelled by the cellos in Lou Reed’s forever unsettling “Street Hassle”—to enter the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and stand before the enormous models that spooked him in childhood, amounts to more than Walt’s symbolic passage to manhood. It’s the moment that he steps out of the scenario and is confronted by the beauty and chaos of the big, wide universe beyond his broken family circle back in Brooklyn.

***

The New York film world is pretty small in the end, and all four of the main characters in The Squid and the Whale are based on people who are a part of that world. Baumbach’s mother and father, Georgia Brown and Jonathan Baumbach, wrote film criticism for the Village Voice and the Partisan Review, respectively, and Nico Baumbach now teaches film at Columbia University. Like many others in that world, I’m proud to count most of the members of this family as friends, and that includes the filmmaker himself. But friendships aside, this is a hometown movie made by a hometown boy that feels true to New York life on every level. It is astonishing to consider the number of films and TV shows shot here that get the city wrong, that use it as nothing more than an easily identifiable backdrop. The way The Squid and the Whale’s characters move and behave in relation to their surroundings, the rhythms of their speech, the dollhouse smallness of brownstone neighborhoods with low-hanging trees—everything felt right in 2005, and it feels even righter now. Baumbach’s aesthetic here feels homegrown and drawn from pure instinct, a quantum leap forward from his debut, Kicking and Screaming, made a decade earlier.

I do remember coming away from The Squid and the Whale in 2005 with the sense that, for all its humor and pathos, the dominant emotion was anger, specifically the anger of the filmmaker at his parents for getting divorced. Looking at the film again today, I still feel the anger, but it is crisscrossed by fierce love for both parents as individuals, for a brother, for a city, for a time gone by . . . and for getting it all right, down to the smallest grimace and the slowest teardrop. This is a very funny film, to be sure, and a richly entertaining one as well, and certain scenes and interactions—Frank’s obscenity-laced lesson with the ridiculously even-tempered tennis pro Ivan (was Billy Baldwin ever better cast?), Walt’s performance of “Hey You,” Bernard caught urging his live-in college-student crush (Anna Paquin) to “put me in your mouth”—have become YouTube favorites. But snatching an instant here or a moment there from this brilliant, pulsing movie is to do it an injustice. Emotions come and go in a flash—from painful adolescent diffidence to embarrassing reversions to one-upmanship to the greater mortifications of ill-chosen words and actions that betray a conflicted heart—each one lovingly wrought and then positioned within the great whirlwind of human interaction. “At thirty, I hit a crisis,” admitted Noah to one interviewer. “In a general way, I think, I wanted to make more emotional movies that were less about being clever.” That is exactly the path he has cultivated as an artist, and he set out on that path with this one-of-a-kind film.