Dir. Noah Baumbach. Starring Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Laura Linney.
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The Squid and the Whale is scathing when it wants to be, which is just about all the time. For a time, Walt (Eisenberg) is the most odious of the family, a teenager who deserves the kind of tongue-lashing that Roald Dahl could mete out in his writing to misbehaving kids. He belongs to a species of teenager which is not frequently represented on screen; where many teenagers are rebellious in some way, Walt is a slave to the canonicity espoused by his father, Bernard (Daniels), an author whose career has stalled. What his dad likes, Walt likes, although what his dad dismisses Walt is ready to dismiss with much more gusto. When Bernard calls A Tale of Two Cities “minor Dickens,” Walt decides it’s not worth it to read the book for school. Bernard praises The Metamorphosis in front of Walt, and Walt goes on to praise it in similar terms in front of a girl he’s trying to impress. (Incidentally, I love that Bernard, who fancies himself somewhat avant-garde and dense, has utterly orthodox literary opinions.) I think my absolute favorite moment of the film comes where the girl, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), starts talking about the story with him. She’s so taken with him that she’s actually gone out and read the book; the only descriptor Walt can come up with for The Metamorphosis is “Kafkaesque.” If Walt were limited merely to pretending to have read a book he hasn’t actually read before, then he would be more or less like all of us. But he’s not simply a liar (he’ll pass off a Pink Floyd song as his own at the school talent show until he’s finally caught) but condescending as well. He is dismissive of his mother’s writing career, seeming resentful of her success. To his younger brother, Frank (Owen Kline), Walt complains that she wasn’t even interested in writing until she met Bernard. When he finds out that his mother had cheated on his father, he lays down the kind of airy, remorseless moral judgment one would have thought died out around the Salem Witch Trials; even people who don’t believe in corporal punishment for kids cheer a little when she slaps him. The complaint about his mom’s literary success sounds odd when we first hear him say it early in the movie; it doesn’t take long for us to realize that these are his father’s complaints, simply repackaged by an adoring son and said in a significantly more annoying voice. Why would a high schooler be mad at his mother, with whom he has a perfectly decent relationship, for becoming professionally successful? These are the resentments of an egotistical grown-up, not a self-important son. And it turns out that these are precisely the kind of things which Bernard is not afraid to say – is not even turned off by saying – around his kids.
To Bernard, the world is broken up into a cosmos of an elect and of a huddled, ugly mass. He refers to good things (which are good because he bestows goodness on them) as the “filet” of something. A good house is the filet of the neighborhood; a crime writer is the filet of the genre. As for the people around them, they are either philistines or the few who do appreciate the finer things, which are enumerated as “books and interesting movies.” This distinction is given to Frank one night as they play ping-pong together. (Playing ping-pong with his father, who is unmercifully better than him as well as one of those dads who can’t let their sons fairly beat them when it does chance to happen, is not one of Frank’s favorite activities.) Frank thinks about it and says that he must be a philistine. He wants to be a tennis pro like Ivan (William Baldwin), who made a Mephistophelean deal to be perpetually chill but in return can only end a sentence in “my brother.” Bernard rejects that thesis; of course Frank is interested in books and interesting movies. There’s no evidence for it, but Bernard could not have been partially responsible for a philistine, so therefore Frank is not among that unhappy number of fools Frank’s primary interest, it’ll turn out, is masturbating in public places and leaving the spunk on lockers or on books. Eventually, someone will catch him; It leads to a pretty hilarious piece of camerawork that I won’t ruin for you if you haven’t seen the movie. In any event, Bernard’s world circles around his own comfort. The comfort of finding a parking spot near to his house is paramount to him. The comfort of a wife who makes dinner for him is an important element of his life. The comfort of being appropriately feted as a novelist is one which is stripped away from him throughout the film. And the comfort of thinking of himself as a ladies’ man is one that he will indulge in a pretty nasty fashion, and one that leads him to give some awful advice to his undiscriminating older son. Bernard is simply a narcissist. He seems unable to project emotions onto anyone else, unable to understand what they might be feeling; this is, of course, an ugly predicament for a novelist to be in, and a probable cause for the slow death of his career. The world is viewed uncompromisingly through a lens which is squarely on him. At one point, trying to convince Joan (Linney) that he has done some nice things during their marriage, he tells her that he made burgers for the family that time she had pneumonia.
The film so quickly sets up sides – Bernard and Walt against Joan and Frank – that breaking those alliances allows for the film’s most incisive moment. Having been forced to go to a counselor, Walt thinks about a happy memory; interestingly, it’s one where he and his mother watched The Adventures of Robin Hood on TV, just the two of them, when he was much younger. The counselor is quick to note that his father is totally absent from the story. As bleak as The Squid and the Whale can occasionally be, it’s willing to show some light outside of its dark humor. Joan’s only real blemish is that she’s cheated on her husband; as Bernard’s eccentricities are proved to be noisome character flaws, and as he decides to start finding sexual comfort in the arms of one of his college students (Anna Paquin), that comes to matter less and less in our minds. Joan is a different person, perhaps a more sagacious one, than she was when she first married Bernard. One thing that’s been the same all the way through, though, is that she’s the one who has cared for the kids. Frank is drawn to his mother because she treats him with warmth and affection, which are not founts Bernard possesses. Walt, before he became impressed with his dad’s hypermasculine sureness, seems to have felt the same way. Joan has pet names for the kids, which are a little weird (“chicken” for Walt and “pickle” for Frank), but they come from a place of love. Walt’s shift back to his mother, who has given him love more than she’s given him attention, willing to listen to him as opposed to the way Bernard needs him as an audience, is optimistic; if you catch someone soon enough, s/he might be able to change.
When Walt goes back to the Museum of Natural History to see the diorama of the squid and the whale, a fight which as a child scared him to pieces, he can look at it without his hands over his eyes. The metaphor is one which hangs over the film and gives it its memorable title. As Eisenberg stands in front of the diorama, though, I wish the movie had been called something else. I wish the metaphor had landed on us for the first time during Walt’s counseling session as opposed to being the name of the movie itself. Walt looks on at the squid, apparently the aggressor, though surely it knows that the whale is a predator which, if it had found the squid first, doubtless would have eaten it. It represents the change in his own thinking; for most of the film, he would have thought the squid was his mother, the weaker party making a preemptive strike. A more holistic view of the situation recognizes that Bernard, even though he is not the one who calls for the divorce, was the squid in the sense that he was more threatened. He had already ceded one major sphere of his life to his wife when he stopped being a parent for anything more than his own vanity. But his wife, who could swallow his professional success whole and leave him time to consider how far he’d fallen, is the one under attack. And maybe, if Walt really has come along so far, he might recognize that his father isn’t in the diorama at all. The squid, the cold-blooded attacker, was him all this time.