First and foremost a portrait of the effect divorce has on family relationships, The Squid and the Whale strikes an interesting line between honesty and pretentiousness, and it walks that line so delicately that I could not decide which it was before realizing the obvious: It’s both. How is it honest? It is honest in its depiction of divorce and its impact on the family and, especially the way it affects children. How is it pretentious? It is pretentious in its titular symbolism, in its dealing with, the younger of the two sons, and its fetishized yet condemned intellectualism. There is a lot of talk about art, books, and philistines, but it never amounts to much more than an identifier of Bernard (Jeff Daniels), the father of the family and the once-acclaimed but now down-on-his-luck antagonist of the film. The film treads this round carefully, amounting to an often touching, sometimes mundane portrait of the broken family. It’s written with and for sharp minds but always either over-directed or not directed at all.
Far more than intellectualism, The Squid and the Whale is about family and divorce, and it looks at the relationship divorce has on the family as a whole, but also each combination of two family members. Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is the most intensely studied subject of the film. He is closest to his father, and upon discovering that his mother Joan (Laura Linney) was unfaithful, decides to go against the joint-custody agreement and stay primarily with his father. Younger brother Frank (Owen Kline), however, can barely understand the changes divorce brings and is adamant about continuing to live in the same house, which goes to his mother.
Each of the four main characters—and the rotation of romantic interests that come and go with them—have their very distinct personalities, their own ways of talking, and they help bring these characters to life, each one likely to remind every viewer of someone they know or used to know. The acting helps too—except for a few bad scenes by Eisenberg, performances are strong all around—but it is mostly Baumbach’s naturalistic writing that grants The Squid and the Whale its verisimilitude. Every character is refreshingly real, and Baumbach’s handling of the subject matter avoids unnecessary drama and sensationalism to ensure that his story’s heart remains intact and in sight. Frank’s nonstop swearing and masturbation are poorly handled and insignificant, but that aside, everything comes together as the details of these people fill themselves in. Walt borders on tragic hero, trying to live up to the expectations of a false idol but instead repeatedly being hurt. Some of it is his fault and some of it is not, and the father is certainly not trying to ruin Walt, but that only helps to prove the importance and delicateness of family.
It also leads squarely into what may be the film’s biggest strength: everyone is good intentioned. There are a few slip-ups that undermine the film’s credibility, but in calling Bernard an antagonist, I mean that in its most basic sense: as a challenge for the protagonist to overcome. Bernard is not a villain. There are no villains. There are only people doing what they think is right, seeking advice from those they trust, hoping for the best, trying to work them out but occasionally getting a bit too angry to actually compromise. Again, this occasionally comes across in a form more pretentious than heartfelt, but those moments are anomalies in a film where they could easily be the entire make-up, so imperfection, while distracting but forgivable.
Still, for every virtue Baumbach has a writer, he has a directorial vice. If not for the fetishistic impulse with which Noah Baumbach deploys names like Lou Reed and Charles Dickens and works like The Great Gatsby or Blue Velvet, The Squid and the Whale would take a turn toward anti-intellectual. As it stands, the intellectual front is questioned but revered; Walt takes after his father, name-dropping artists, taking credit for Pink Floyd songs, and evaluating works as “minor” or “masterpiece” based solely on his father’s opinion. It’s hard to tell if Baumbach is mocking this artistically motivated front or not, and it is a major motif of the film that never amounts to much more than affirming the film’s hipness. It helps with realism, but a bigger deal is made out of it than its point warrants, almost destroying the verisimilitude that it creates.
Walt’s intellectual affront leads to embarrassment, but Baumbach still can’t help but put Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” all over the soundtrack, and as Joan becomes more sympathetic, she gets bigger and bigger breaks, being published in The New Yorker and getting a deal for a book while Bernard’s well remains dry. Whether Baumbach had something to say about intellectualism, (as he defines it semi-ironically) and art is anybody’s best guess, the film’s biggest puzzle but also, I fear, its biggest dead-end.
It certainly doesn’t help that the biggest attempt to address this comes with fairly empty visuals. A Saul Bellow book on a table or a shelf full of books is the extent of Baumbach’s mise-en-scene, and they are far more of a redundancy than an enhancement. To call The Squid and the Whale visually dead is an understatement. The film quickly tells us that it takes place in 1986, but it’s not until they go see Blue Velvet that I realize that they’re not in the present, as there is no period detail present whatsoever.
What you get in combining the two Noah Baumbachs, the dull director and the ambitious, minimalist screenwriter is a charming and mostly-intelligent film that will make you roll your eyes a bit too often. If it was not directed with so much self-importance and suaveness, it could be something special. As it stands it’s a worthy snapshot of a boy caught in a difficult time made more difficult by the external. Its treatment of the internal and external lends it a specific kind of credibility that this kind of story needs but rarely receives. It looks like amateurism but plays like promise. It’s a breath of fresh air, but fresh air from a rather dirty town.