‘Squid and Whale’: smart look at drowning family
Writer-director Noah Baumbach, in an interview last month with The Aspen Times, claimed that the frequent scenes of tennis and pingpong in his film, “The Squid and the Whale,” were not meant to symbolize anything. “Those were the games we played,” said the 35-year-old Baumbach, who drew on his own childhood – the setting in mid-’80s Brooklyn, the bitter breakup of his writer parents – for the story.While unintentional, tennis and pingpong make for pitch-perfect metaphors for the strife of the Berkman family. There’s the bouncing back and forth; the division into teams in doubles tennis, or the solitary pursuit of singles. It’s competitive, with winners and losers. There’s plenty of cursing. All of these are themes or elements of “The Squid and the Whale,” now playing at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House.
The film, in fact, opens on the tennis court: father Bernard and 17-year-old Walt (Jeff Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg, respectively) on one side, mom Joan and 10-year-old Frank (Laura Linney and Owen Kline) on the other. It’s a family game, and the sides aren’t fair. But that doesn’t stop Bernard and Walt from playing tennis as a blood sport. The high tempers running through the Berkman family, it is obvious, are not limited to the court.Soon enough, Bernard and Joan are having the family sit-down, at which they announce that they are separating. Giving the kids assurances of their continuing love, Bernard and Joan detail the plans for joint custody, a disastrous scheme that has both boys – even the bewildered cat – shuttling five subway stops every night as they pingpong between Mom and Dad.At least the split into teams is clean. Walt takes up Dad’s side, blaming his mother for the breakup, and arguing for Bernard’s place as an underrated literary giant whose fading star will rise again. Frank aligns with Mom to the point of becoming despondent when informed that he has his dad’s bone structure.
Walt and Frank are united in deed only. Both act out equally in response to the self-absorbed, inappropriate parenting that is the heart of the film. Bernard continually regales Walt with stories of the opportunities for sexual adventure he passed up as a younger man “because I was with your mom,” he keeps reminding Walt. Walt responds by giving a dose of emotional abuse to Sophie, the girlfriend he should be delighting in. Joan starts an affair with the boys’ airhead tennis coach (William Baldwin); Frank takes up forms of self-pleasure that only begins with drinking hard booze. The boys eventually retreat into their safe corners: Walt refuses to go to Mom’s; Frank runs away from Dad’s. The point made by one of Walt’s classmates is made: “Joint custody blows!”But for all the bitterness and squirm-inducing scenes, “The Squid and the Whale” offers rays of hope. Baumbach laces the film with dark humor that works more as real comedy than bleak irony. Walt, enjoying the tradition of Friday night dinner in a Chinese restaurant (a truism for many East Coast Jewish families) with Sophie’s family, notes that he’s just happy to be able to order as many dishes as there are people. “Not ordering enough food – that’s our family tradition,” he cracks in a rare moment of criticizing his father. (It is also a beautiful Woody Allenism.) And Daniels gives an excellent, accidentally comic performance as the cheap, flawed Bernard. Beyond the laughs, “The Squid and the Whale” takes a slight but significant turn in tone. After winning a talent contest by claiming Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own, Walt is sent to a therapist. Asked to recall a happy moment, Walt’s memory drifts toward the fighting fish – the squid and the whale – at the Museum of Natural History, and how his mother, of all people, offered protection from the scary image. The memory is eye-opening, as Walt begins to re-examine his assumptions about his parents. And the film ends with Walt revisiting the scene of that warm moment.
And if that’s not hopeful enough, consider the case of filmmaker Baumbach. He survived his parents’ divorce to make a film that is smart and understanding, rather than nasty and accusatory.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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