‘Squid and the Whale’ keeps it real
Last year’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” could hardly have been more a work of pure imagination. The film, directed by Wes Anderson and co-written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, stars Bill Murray as a Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer bent on revenge – against the mythical shark that killed his partner. Murray’s Steve Zissou was accompanied by a comic cast of seamen, rivals, former wives, long-lost children and a strolling musician playing samba versions of David Bowie tunes.For his latest project, Baumbach stayed closer to real life. “The Squid and the Whale” might sound, in its title, like a potential sequel to “The Life Aquatic.” But Baumbach’s directorial debut tracks the filmmaker’s upbringing. “The Squid and the Whale” is set in 1980s Brooklyn and populated by the Berkman family – two writer parents and two confused boys – stumbling clumsily through separation. All those elements are familiar to Baumbach, a 35-year-old Brooklyn product whose parents are Georgia Brown, a critic from New York’s Village Voice, and Jonathan Baumbach, a novelist and film critic. And it is a story Baumbach, who imagined himself making films from an early age, always thought would, in one form or another, make its way to the screen.”On some level, I always thought I would deal with my adolescence and my parents’ divorce,” Baumbach said by phone. “But I didn’t think I would make a movie about the divorce. I expected it to seep into my work.”
“The Squid and the Whale,” however, tackles the subject head-on. The film barely strays from the domestic life of the Berkmans, and how the Berkman kids – 17-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and preteen Frank (Owen Kline, the son of actor Kevin Kline) – respond to the misguided, self-absorbed parenting of mom and dad. Mom (Laura Linney) is Joan, an unfaithful, up-and-coming writer. Dad (Jeff Daniels) is Bernard, a down-and-descending novelist. Out of the parents’ bitterness and bickering, alliances have formed: Walt is attached to Bernard, mimicking his father’s misanthropy toward women and his overly critical eye. Frank takes sides with Joan, and twists her philandering into sexual misdeeds of his own.In taking on his own past, Baumbach, as the older brother in his family, naturally gravitated toward Walt’s perspective of the family history. But the writer in Baumbach didn’t settle for a one-sided narrative, and the strength of “The Squid and the Whale” is in the equal time it gives each family member’s anger, disillusion and distinct way of acting out.”I don’t think I could have found my way into the movie by starting with the parents. The impetus to write this came from the kids. The mindset I came with is these two brothers, and the initial draft came from their perception,” Baumbach said. “But as I worked on it, I began to identify with the parents and brought them more into focus.”The performance of Jeff Daniels aids the effort to flesh out the parents immeasurably. Linney’s work as Joan was good enough to earn the actress a Golden Globe nomination. (The film itself is also a Golden Globe nominee for best musical or comedy, and Baumbach earned prizes for both writing and direction at the Sundance Film Festival.) But where Joan is relatively at peace with the family situation, Bernard is revisiting adolescent emotions of hostility and selfishness – and Daniels therefore gets to light up, while Linney recedes a bit to the background. Not only is Daniels receiving award buzz, but it’s likely that the 50-year-old actor has found a role that will have audiences considering him in an entirely new way.”People would say, ‘How can you get the guy from “Dumb & Dumber?”‘ for this movie,” Baumbach said. “But I was thinking of ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’ and ‘Terms of Endearment.’ Jeff to me was always like Spencer Tracy, who could make it look so easy. He doesn’t show the seams; he doesn’t show the performance.”There was something about him that felt like the character. He has these sad eyes, and if he grew a beard, he would fit the character.”
Daniels’ achievement is to give both tragic and comic dimensions to Bernard’s outrage. When Walt’s girlfriend offers to pay for her share of the dinner tab – and Bernard silently accepts it – there is a satisfying, discomfiting mix of humor and queasiness. That blurred line between comedy and domestic disaster makes “The Squid and the Whale” work as an entertaining look at a grim subject.Daniels, Baumbach said, “fit the bill in what I needed – someone who could be funny but wasn’t a comedian. A comic take on things is very natural for me. “But I wanted [‘The Squid and the Whale’] to feel honest and true in some way. So there’s another side of me that assumed it would turn out sadder than expected.”
“The Squid and the Whale” plays today at 5:30 p.m. at Harris Hall as part of Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings series. Tickets at the Wheeler Box Office or at the door, depending upon availability. A complete Academy Screenings program appears in this A&E section. “The Squid and the Whale” will also show at the Wheeler Opera House on Jan. 5-7.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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