The 80’s brought more than bad hairdos and the rise of STD’s: the decade gave birth to a higher frequency of divorce, which began to sweep the nation and hasn’t stopped since. The Squid & The Whale is a story of two young boys dealing with their parent’s divorce in 1986 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The title may sound like a fairy tale, but the story is more like one cup of reality mixed with a few quarts of offbeat Wes Anderson sensibility. He didn’t direct the film (he produced it), but his vibe is all over it, for better or worse.
The Squid & The Whale opens with a family tennis match. The match ends when Bernard (Jeff Daniels) accidentally hits a ball into his wife Joan (Laura Linney) during a competitive fit. She sulks off the court as her two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), watch the game—and their parent’s marriage—quickly unravel. Of course, the game is only the tip of the iceberg for their ongoing marital issues. Bernard is a bushy-bearded academic professor who considers himself very intelligent, and will say so to anyone who will listen. His writing career is failing, causing tension when Joan decides to take up the hobby herself. They have not truly connected for years, outside of sharing a house, and they no longer share a bed. Walt is a typical 16 year old, chasing tail and rarely catching it, and Frank is a moody 12 year old, crying one moment and hurling obscenities the next.
As far as dysfunctional families go, they score pretty high on the chart. Naturally, a divorce is on the horizons, and it’s announced during a family meeting. Bernard moves out and the kids (and even the fluffy grey cat) are subjected to joint custody. Neither son reacts positively to the change, and both respond by acting out in different ways. Walt tries to come off as a hard-ass, blaming his mother for all of their problems and siding with his father who tells him in deadpan fashion, “The divorce has little to do with me.” Frank prefers his emotional mother, perhaps a bit too much, as he scurries through her underwear drawer and gets caught masturbating at school. Humping library bookshelves and wiping semen on lockers is a surefire way of drawing attention to your dissatisfaction with a situation.
It’s hard to really like these characters since we are not told very much about them, aside from their apparent flaws. Bernard and Walt’s arrogance and narcissism are most noticeable since they are given the most screen time. When they both start going after the same sexpot girl Lili (Anna Paquin), the story exposes them both as even more immoral than originally believed. Frank, who resembles Wil Wheaton (Stand By Me) in looks and demeanor, seems sweet until his deranged side comes out in full force and never seems to recover. Joan is like a stranger whom we know nothing about, except for her fondness for affairs and a free-spirited tennis player named Ivan. Played by William Baldwin, Ivan is a one-note performance, reduced to the repetitive catch-phrase “My brother”. He may be one note, but the character still delivers laughs.
Squid & The Whale is funny, but it plays like a poor man’s copy of The Royal Tenenbaums. The character of Bernard is exactly like Royal, with his easy knack for insulting people with offensive but hilarious insights, and the story involves a detached man desperately trying to connect with a family. While Jeff Daniels is no Gene Hackman, he does a great job as sloppy seconds. The biggest disappointment is Laura Linney, who seems like she could play this part while sleepwalking into the kitchen for a late night snack. I can’t fathom what drew her to the role, but it certainly couldn’t have been non-existent character development.
The Squid & The Whale is a film that will stay with you until the credits roll, and then magically vanish from memory. It isn’t a bad movie, but it is painfully average. When you throw a talented cast together with a fairly witty script, it’s sad to see the final product lack resilience. It doesn’t help that writer/director Noah Baumbach decided to shoot the film on Super 16 film instead of digital, to give it a more ‘authentic’ feel. Instead, the film looks grainy and jittery in a way that isn’t easy on the eyes or the stomach. Adding audio insult to visual injury, The Pink Floyd song “Hey You” is played about a billion times, to hammer us how great it is, as though we didn’t figure that out decades ago. What’s next for Pink Floyd—Volvo commercials? The Squid & The Whale copies great movies and great songs but fails to bring anything new to the table. It’s a mixed bag of mediocrity, amounting to nothing more than a composite of superior elements.