Sony // 2005 // 81 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // April 10th, 2006
Joint custody blows.
2005's single best tagline also makes for one of its best films.
The Berkman family is splitting up, and it sucks. It sucks for older son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, Roger Dodger), who idolizes his father and demonizes his mother for choosing to leave him. It sucks for younger son Frank (Owen Kline), who wants to be a tennis pro and doesn't really feel like he belongs to the family in the first place (Frank: "What's a philistine?" Dad: "A person who doesn't care about books or interesting films or things." Frank: "Then I'm a philistine."). It sucks for mom Joan (Laura Linney, You Can Count On Me), who is tired of living in her husband's shadow, tired of having affairs, and who wants to begin writing. It sucks for dad Bernard (Jeff Daniels, Love Hurts, Imaginary Heroes), a once-successful novelist who has yet to repeat that success, and who is seeing his own literary career eclipsed by his ex-wife's. Divorce sucks. Joint custody blows.
There's a certain kind of independent film -- let's call it the "dysfunction movie" -- that I've called into question on more than one occasion during my days at The Verdict. Whether it was Michael Clancy's Eulogy, which played it for laughs, or Vanessa Parise's Kiss the Bride, which played it for drama, I found myself constantly questioning whether dysfunction, as a subject, was enough to sustain an entire feature film -- generally determining that no, it wasn't. Well, here is Noah Baumbach's masterful The Squid and the Whale, which plays dysfunction for both comedy and drama and proves to be the exception to the rule.
What Baumbach understands (and other filmmakers don't, apparently) is that dysfunction only works if it comes out of character -- shouting and arguing alone won't cut it. So, rather than shouting matches -- hardly a voice is raised in The Squid and the Whale -- Baumbach delivers four of the best-realized characters to see a movie screen in recent years. He's got a real ear for the way that intelligent, self-absorbed people can wound one another with words and never hurl an insult -- these people are aggressively passive-aggressive. And though the Academy disagreed with me, I would suggest that Baumbach wrote the finest screenplay of 2005; except for one element (a particular and rather key plot device is a bit unbelievable, as it expects us to believe that a number of cultured New York artistic types have never heard Pink Floyd's The Wall), the movie never steps wrong. Of course, it helps that the words are coming from the mouths of such skilled performers. Laura Linney is incapable of playing anything less than intelligent; Jeff Daniels, all grizzled beard and pomposity, has been working toward this performance his entire career, and he delivers what's easily the best work he's done to date. The real find of the movie is young Owen Kline (son of dad Kevin and mom Phoebe Cates), completely unaffected and wise beyond his years, yet damaged in ways that haven't yet fully surfaced. He also might be the only character in the movie who stands a chance (although the final shot suggests otherwise).
Writer-director Baumbach has visited this territory before; his debut, 1995's literate-grads-in-crisis comedy Kicking and Screaming (rumored to be on Criterion's slate for later this year, so let's cross our fingers) focused on the same snobbish, emotionally retarded intellectual types -- only about twenty years younger than the ones found here. Kicking and Screaming, though, was more about how these people are in movies -- it played into the clichés and traditions of indie cinema. The Squid and the Whale gives us these people as they are in life. It is raw and painful, claustrophobic and unnerving. It's also really funny (something about tragedy plus time?) and fantastically well observed -- so well observed, in fact, that I would give a word of warning to any child of separated parents before taking it in. This is the Jaws of divorce movies.
At a time when far too many films seem to subscribe to the notion that to be taken seriously they've got to clock in at around two and a half hours (perhaps we should thank Peter Jackson for this phenomenon), The Squid and the Whale clips right along to the 80-minute mark. The leanness suits it well -- it's incredibly tightly constructed, never allowing scenes to overstay their welcome. They play like snapshots, often passing with only a single line of dialogue (if that much) that tells us more about a given character than an entire speech could in the hands of a lesser writer. Even more impressive, given this structure, is that Baumbach never allows the movie to become too episodic -- the way that a number of movies based on memory can do.
Sony delivers The Squid and the Whale in an attractive package, dressed up with just enough extras to make us feel not only like we're getting our money's worth, but that we're getting to know a little more about this very special movie, too. The feature is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1; because Baumbach and cinematographer Robert Yeoman (Rushmore, Red Eye) shot the film on Super 16, there is some grain and a small number of source defects, but overall the transfer looks quite nice. There is a 5.1 surround audio track (as well as a French track in traditional stereo) that does a fine job of delivering Baumbach's razor-sharp dialogue and balancing it perfectly with his moody music choices.
The songs in the film actually reminded me of Scorsese's Mean Streets -- they seem just as personal and autobiographical as those that the Harvey Keitel character was hearing on his radio. Baumbach, though, is of a generation that's far more bombarded by pop culture, and the music in the film reflects it. When selections of Tangerine Dream's score from Risky Business and "Figure 8" from Schoolhouse Rock! are used as nondiagetic score, they bring not only their immediate effect to the movie (surprising just how effective a novelty song from an educational cartoon proves to be) but the intertextual memory of absorbing that pop culture along with them.
Baumbach begins his nontraditional commentary track by stating that he's not really a fan of the kind of play-by-play that substitutes for most DVD commentaries, and that he doesn't really feel good about making audiences watch the movie all over again). So instead, he speaks for about 50 minutes over a series of slides -- mostly still images from the movie, with some behind-the-scenes pictures as well -- and goes into real specifics about the movie's origins, its production, and some of his choices as a filmmaker. It's a rewarding talk, but it demands close attention from the viewer; because it's far less visually engaging than watching the movie unfold again, it's probably best suited to hardcore fans of Baumbach and his film. Anyone else might lose interest rather quickly.
What Baumbach doesn't really get into on his "commentary" is the film's autobiographical roots -- his father is a New York writer, and the movie comes from his and his brother's childhood experiences. Luckily, though, he does go into some of this in an interview segment with writer Phillip Lopate, who seems to be interested in precisely these aspects of the movie. Their talk is every bit as rewarding as Baumbach's solo commentary, and he manages to avoid repeating himself much, allowing both extras to complement one another. Rounding out the special features is a brief behind-the-scenes featurette, a couple of bonus trailers, and a case insert that reprints a pair of the movie's warmer reviews.
Just as the final months of the year are always good for theatrical releases (award season!), the start of this spring is proving to be strong for DVD -- no doubt because those same films have finally cycled through their theatrical run and are now starting to appear on home video. It's a good thing, too, as a number of last year's best movies fell through the cracks the first time around. DVD gives everyone a chance to check those titles out -- it levels the playing field. The Squid and the Whale is precisely one of those films deserving of more attention -- small, tightly directed, smartly written and expertly acted. It was, after all, very nearly my favorite film of 2005 (edged out only by one supremely entertaining big-budget blockbuster -- go figure). I'm never wrong.
Not guilty. Don't be difficult.
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Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director Commentary
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
* Interview with Writer-Director Noah Baumbach and Writer Phillip Lopate
* Collectible Insert
* Bonus Trailers
* Official Site