Noah Baumbach’s Comedy of Humiliation


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) 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 identifies with Mom—an altogether more mysterious and less attitudinizing force. Baumbach’s 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.