The literary craze for tell-all family memoir gets a unique twist in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, a film à clef that satirically dramatizes the disintegration of his parents’ marriage.
Tender, cruel, and very funny, Baumbach’s fourth feature turns family history into a sort of urban myth. Although the Berkmans of mid-1980s Park Slope lack the quirky grandeur of the Glass family or the Royal Tenenbaums, they wander even more myopically in the land of literary metaphor. Tennis functions as a metonym for relationships; the search for a parking space is a free-floating trope. As the eldest Berkman son poignantly brags, both his parents have Ph.D.’s in literature.
Books embody love. Thus, when Mom (a naturalistically unglamorous Laura Linney) and college professor Dad (a brilliantly unrecognizable Jeff Daniels) break the news that they are breaking up, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, the avid nephew in Roger Dodger) blames Mom. The son’s respect for his intellectually overbearing father is both heartbreaking and hilarious; given his sense of the world, Walt assumes that Mom ditched Dad because his recent “experimental” novels have been commercial flops. Younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) is still a kid and identified with Mom—an altogether more mysterious and less attitudinizing force.
Dad moves into a dump on the far side of Prospect Park, taking his sons on alternate nights. He’s a shamelessly self-pitying, grotesquely competitive, pompous cheapskate—but, as expansively played by Daniels, his comic flaws are complicated by an inherent decency and dogged insistence on artistic seriousness. Dad is the hapless idealist; Mom, who pretty much does whatever she wants, is the tough realist. Events grow increasingly complicated once she publishes a story in The New Yorker and takes up with an affable tennis pro (William Baldwin), while Dad’s most provocative student (Anna Paquin) moves into his spare room.
Baumbach’s unwieldy title alludes to a diorama, known as “The Clash of the Titans,” that has left its impression on the minds of many a young visitor to the Museum of Natural History. But less than the war between the Berkmans—which, paradoxically, now seems to inform Baumbach’s earlier films Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1998)—the movie’s real struggle is between father and son. Having inherited Dad’s self-importance (Kafka identified as “one of my predecessors”), Walt dutifully sits in on his father’s college writing seminars and faithfully parrots his literary opinions, at one point attempting to impress a classmate by characterizing
The Metamorphosis, which he has never read, as “very Kafkaesque.”
The precocious Kicking and Screaming remains a notable evocation of postgraduate angst; the less successful Mr. Jealousy is a fascinating analysis of male masochism. Like those, The Squid and the Whale is filled with throwaway, hyper-verbal pyrotechnics, but it’s visually wittier and less cute—not least in its mortifying view of adolescent sex. This comedy of humiliation has strong elements of psychodrama and even exorcism. Baumbach gave his actual father a cameo as his alter ego’s writing teacher in Kicking and Screaming; here the filmmaker casts himself as his fictional father’s old student. Indeed. Dad departs The Squid and the Whale in a richly novelistic climax: The long-simmering parking crisis boils over in a farcical turn of events whose emotional complexity may be gauged by competing readings of Breathless.
Full disclosure: If I hadn’t liked The Squid and the Whale so much, I might have begged off reviewing. For, while I have only the slightest personal acquaintance with the filmmaker, I do know his brother, his father, and particularly, his mother, former Voice movie critic Georgia Brown. From this privileged position, the movie is, of course, additionally fascinating—albeit not so much for what the filmmaker reveals about his family but how he chooses to represent them.
Janet Malcolm opened her infamous screed The Journalist and the Murderer by observing that “every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” But isn’t this true of any writer who takes people’s lives as grist for her mill? I don’t necessarily recognize Baumbach’s actual family in
The Squid and the Whale but I do recognize the artist’s ruthlessness—and the degree to which he’s been true to their aesthetic family values.