Squid and the Whale, The

Dysfunctional Family Indie Drama

Main Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline

Director: Noah Baumbach

Jeff Daniels isn’t one of those actors that can pull me in to a film with the sheer force of his presence. He’s fine, but he just doesn’t really do all that much for me. But when someone gets the grand idea to place him in a dysfunctional family indie drama, I’m his new biggest fan! Oh, yes, I’m back with my favorite mini-genre, and dysfunction is the name of the game in The Squid and the Whale.

Daniels plays Bernard. Bernard is a…..well, there’s no easy way around it, Bernard is an ass. Bernard is married to Joan (Laura Linney) who seems to be tiring of living with him. They have two children, teenaged Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), who aspires to be just as big a plague on those around him as his father and pre-teen Frank (Owen Kline) who is still young enough to be a wee bit innocent. At least at the beginning of the film.

Once Bernard and Joan decide to separate (which is no surprise – we see it coming from the first moments of the film), The Squid and the Whale takes us on a fly-on-the-wall trip through one family’s transition from messed up as a unit, to messed up individually.

Taking place in 1986, the film has no really blatant time period markers but does have the distinct advantage of being able to avoid looking dated in years to come. It’s a rather clever device, denoting the film as taking place in the not too distant past, leaving the filmmakers free to ignore current pop culture without having to go to any elaborate means to make it a period piece.

Characterization lies at the heart of most dysfunctional family movies, and The Squid and the Whale is no different. While the pompous presence of Bernard is more or less a constant throughout the film and Linney gets the short shrift of a character that’s barely more than paper thin, the two boys are the ones who take the divorce on the chin and develop significantly. Walt takes his father’s side, to no one’s surprise, blaming the entire situation on his mother, and redoubling his efforts to emulate his father. Jesse Eisenberg latches onto the characteristics of Bernard and makes Walt almost painful to watch. He tries so hard to be the intellectual that he envisions his father to be, and his failure only amplifies his desperate need to find the good in this repugnant man as well as his futile attempts to become something for which he has no real role model. Eisenberg is absolutely wonderful, so filled with adolescent rage and ego.

Owen Kline brings young Frank to life. He is the flip side of Walt, attached to his mother and taking her side in the divorce mess. He’s not so blatant or vocal in his assertions of blame as his brother, he simply prefers his mother’s house (and his mother). For Frank, the divorce fallout emerges in a series of rather bizarre sexual experiments, despite the fact that he is really too young to be at that point. Thematically, his acting out is a reflection of his mothers social life both pre- and post-divorce, and as such fits the story well, even if it is a little creepy. Owen Kline is fabulous, we love Frank, we’re shocked by Frank, we can’t help but know that Frank is just a little boy in the middle of a situation he really doesn’t understand.

The piece de resistance of characterization, though, is Bernard. Oh, my, he’s a cornucopia of narcissism. A writer who no one wants to publish, he’s filled with lofty comments about his own intellectual superiority. He passes his wisdom on to Walt in the form of self aggrandizing falsehoods about his own youth and adult status. He’s excessively competitive about virtually everything, despite the fact that in reality he is good at virtually nothing. Daniels runs with this role, making Bernard one of the most entertaining idiots to hit the screen in some time. Initially we just hate the guy, but as we get to know him, we hate him and pity him, then we just hate him and laugh at him. It’s a performance sure to bring out the desire in nearly every viewer for this character to get his comeuppance one day. The irony is that he wouldn’t even recognize it when it came, finding some way to spin it into another grand success.

Laura Linney, much to my dismay, doesn’t have much to work with. Writer/director Noah Baumbach squanders her talent on a character that just doesn’t have the heft of the male cast. She’s crucial to the story, yet she isn’t nearly as fleshed out as she could be. She does a nice job with Joan, but the character as written is flat and mostly uninteresting. As the cherry on the top of this bland sundae, he has her calling her children by forced and irritating nicknames that grate from the first moment she uses them.

Aside from the waste of Linney and a rather abrupt ending, I have only one real problem with The Squid and the Whale, and it doesn’t actually involve the end product, but rather the production of the film. Owen Kline (playing younger son Frank) is currently fifteen years old. This film came out last year, so at the time of filming, he was no older than thirteen, probably, from his appearance, even younger. His character certainly does not appear to be older than twelve at the most. Yet the script has him doing a few things that make me uneasy. While I’m sure there is some editing going on that make things appear other than they actually are, there are a couple of scenes that I would not, as a parent, be comfortable with my twelve or thirteen year old child acting out in front of the world. Early adolescence is troublesome and confusing enough without play acting sexual crises on film. I’m not condemning the kid’s parents (who happen to be Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), but it makes Frank’s scenes of sexual shenanigans a little creepy as well as pulling the viewer out of the story.

The Squid and the Whale is a very good film. Three out of the four main characters are developed extremely well, and are given life by excellent performances. My own queasiness about a few scenes aside, this is a touching movie about the impact of divorce on these two kids, as well as on the large child that is their father. Baumbach throws in enough humorous moments to keep up the momentum of the film without dulling the turmoil of the situation. Perhaps the greatest feat of the film is that no longer, when I see the name Jeff Daniels, will I automatically think, ”The dumber half of “Dumb and Dumber.” Now I’ll think, ”That loser in The Squid and the Whale.” For any lover of the dysfunctional family indie drama mini-genre, that’s a high compliment indeed.

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