“Mom and me versus you and dad.”
These are the lines that open Noah Baumbach’s 2005 comedy-drama The Squid and the Whale, a movie about something that we (I presume, we) as Millienials have come to understand quite well. And don’t you worry: if I may slip on my glasses and thumb through my notes, ahem, I do have statistics. According to the Center for Disease control (yes, I went to the CDC for my #TBT movie review) divorce rates went up exponentially through the 1960s and 70s and peaked in the mid-1980s. Funny, The Squid and the Whale is a period piece. I wonder when it – oh.
Baumbach is a curious guy. A frequent collaborator with Wes Anderson (a producer on The Squid and the Whale) he’s helped churn out the scripts for The Life Aquatic and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, as well creating his own works: the too-good-for-how-young-he-was-when-he-made-it-and-not-starring-Will Ferrell Kicking and Screaming, Greenberg, Frances Ha (a collaboration with Greta Gerwig), and the upcoming The Meyerowitz Stories. I’m saying the guy’s a pretty accomplished writer. He also wrote Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. Anyway.
What Baumbach knows better than anything, it seems, is anxiety. There’s plenty of that to go around here. Set in the mid-1980s (oh) in an expensive and upscale part of Brooklyn, The Squid and the Whale filled the Berkman family: stagnant author Bernard (Jeff Daniels); his wife, Joan (Laura Linney), a blossoming novelist herself; and their two kids, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline, in a singular and exceptional performance). The conceit is simple: Bernard and Joan are getting a divorce. These are the facts. We are eventually given an insight into the “why” of their separation, but it’s not necessarily about that. What we should be more concerned about is not the “why” or the “how,” but the “what.”
Many dramatists would tell you that the truest, simplest base of drama is insecurity, and man oh man is there plenty of that at play here. We’re introduced to this family in the midst of a doubles tennis match – Bernard and Walt playing against Joan and Frank. As the story unfolds, we find this tennis motif played again and again. As Bernard moves out of the home to another part of Brooklyn, their separation creates a need to lob insecurities from one side of Prospect Park to another. See? Baumbach’s a pretty smart dude.
Further testament to Baumbach’s ability comes in the form of minutia and the truly pathetic, human element of separation. “Pathetic” is key, here. I’ve seen a number of divorce dramas play out onscreen, onstage, and in real life. Many times (and especially onscreen), it’s easy to sympathize with one side or the other, and especially with the children, typically thought to be the true victims of divorce. Baumbach wants us to sympathize, but he certainly makes it difficult sometimes.
Our Berkman family is chock-full of issues. Bernard is a blowhard – deeply passionate and well-read, full of pretensions but not without insight. He’s presented as a man who would be easy to divorce – but it’s Bernard and his insecurities that seem to drive the story through the first act. His jealousy in regards to his wife’s newfound success is palpable and seems to manifest itself in passive aggression. It’s when he moves across the park to a new home when we see a Bernard that isn’t broken, defeated, and just trying to reach his kids.
Bernard happens to have a far too intense an influence on his doubles partner, the seventeen year-old Walt, so much so that they end up falling for the same woman, one of Bernard’s students (Anna Paquin). It’s Bernard who introduces us to the idea of a “philistine;” one who “doesn’t like books or interesting films.” Walt has become so obsessed with his father’s approval and the idea of NOT being a philistine he offers critiques of books he hasn’t read and claims a Pink Floyd song as his own.
Joan is a woman whose husband, whether he acknowledges it or not, wants her to be in his shadow. Her star in the literary world gradually begins to rise as the film moves on. It’s also revealed that her frequent infidelities caused a rift in the marriage; Bernard seems to learn about the sense one after another through their children, only adding to his issues as Joan continues to soar – getting published and finding love in her son’s tennis instructor (bizarrely, Billy Baldwin).
Finally, we come to the youngest and most impressionable Berkman, Frank. Owen Kline puts in a performance that doesn’t just stand out because he’s young; he holds his own among the seasoned and acclaimed Daniels and Linney. He’s an adolescent boy; this makes all of his relationships inherently antoagonistic. But a show his parents’ separation deepens and the reality hits him, he reacts in alcohol-fueled Oedipal, psychosexual rage. All of this, articulately the more disgusting acts, could easily become farcical and fit more in line with the “comedy” half of the genre listing, but Kline carries it with a tact that makes him more than worthy of the family name (he’s Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates’ son, BTW). His performance is a clear standout.
Divorce is an easy dramatic subject to mine. Baumbach and his cast handle it adeptly and not without irony. It’s a quiet film, but one that comes at you with all the rage and fury of a McEnroe serve.