Movie Review – The Squid and the Whale (2005)

I’ve been a Jeff Daniels fan for a long time.

This is yet another great Jeff Daniels movie based on a very strong script by Noah Baumbach who also directed this family drama. Bernie Berkman (Daniels) is an English professor married to another writer Joan (delivered with great texture by Laura Linney). They have two sons Walt (Chicken) (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Pinkie) Berkman (Owen Kline) who go through their own breakdown episodes when they hear that their mom and dad are separating.

The opening tennis scene in which the four are playing a nasty game of doubles (Bernie keeps hitting Joan with stiff volleys) is a good metaphor for where their relationship is headed. On the one side is Bernie and Walt, and on the other, Joan and Frank.

Nobody seems to be blameless but Joan probably contributed more to the breakup than anybody else with her illicit love affair with a neighbor. During their separation she beds her son’s tennis coach (a perfectly cast happy-go-lucky Bill Baldwin). Soon we have a seriously malfunctioning family unit where the little Frank starts drinking beer when he is home alone and displays sex-related anomalies at school and home. Walt, on the other hand, takes a different route to his neurosis and tries plagiarism to score a quick success at his high school’s talent contest.

Bernie himself loses his rudder as well and vacillates between his desire to keep away from Joan, on the one hand, and his jealousy with her literary success and boyfriends on the other. He also starts an affair with a female student of his who rents a room at his new house and flirts with his son as well.

There is no quick and neat solution to this modern drama set in Brooklyn in the 80s. There is an attempt at reconciliation but no one knows how to get the toothpaste back into the tube again. Thus it is very appropriate that the film ends with Walt’s visit to the museum of natural history where there is an immense replica of a whale battling with a giant squid (and thus the film’s title). That looks like a visual representation of Bernie and Joan’s stalemate as well as Walt and Frank’s no holds barred fight in and out of school to keep their sanity and grow as a “normal adult” in a very turbulent world.

The editing is as sharp and fast as the script. I really loved the transitions that kept exposition to a minimum and used the cinema language to great effect. For example, in the scene where Joan is trying to talk and “explain things” to his little son who is in the shower, the appearance of his frail small hand on the shower tile, just a small fragile object coming out of the shower curtain as if it were the antenna of a scared creature testing the world’s atmosphere for presence of poisonous gasses, shows the kind of great talent Noah Baumbach has for telling stories in “motion pictures.”

It’s a good watch if you like modern R-rated dramas. A good 8 out of 10.