08 April 2006
The Squid Vs. the Whale
The Squid and the Whale - dir. Noah Baumbach - 2005 - USA
This joke about the "versus" comes from a couple (two people whom Bernard (Jeff Daniels) might refer to as philistines) who came into my work to rent the film, putting it alongside a Steven Segal shoot-'em-up and a sleazy direct-to-video gore flick. The conversation with my co-worker was as follows:
Co-worker: Why the hell did they rent The Squid and the Whale...?
Me: Maybe they thought it was The Squid Vs. the Whale.... you know, like Freddy Vs. Jason?
CW: Or Alien Vs. Predator?
CW: But, did they see the cover-art? There's nary a squid nor a whale on the cover.
Me: Titles can be misleading. And most people only see what they want to see. When I saw Grizzly Man, I saw two "leather-daddy" couples walk into the theatre. I think they left mid-way through the film.
CW: Well... if it really was The Squid Vs. the Whale, who do you think would win?
Me: I've got my money on the squid. I'm taking this shit home tonight, just to find out.
And took that shit home, I did. And while I don't want to spoil the ending, I will say the final battle between squid and whale comes to as uneventful a climax as those two other Hollywood battles. While I may be a tad facecious, upon rereading my last sentence, I've found that it still remains an acurate statement about The Squid and the Whale.
I'm going to go back to the old Wes Anderson (he produced this one) connections here. As in my Junebug/Thumbsucker blogs, I've discussed the plague that Anderson has cast upon the realm of American "independent" cinema, creating irony into a clumsy artform and embracing phony, hip, oh-très-Nouvelle Vague stylization. (Baumbach originally wanted Bill Murray in the Jeff Daniels role... he should thank his lucky stars Murray was too busy if he didn't want his film to turn into yet another Bill Murray picture) Like his earlier Kicking & Screaming (that quintessential 90s one with Parker Posey, not the Will Ferrall one), The Squid and the Whale is a talk-fest, never imposing a showy, hip stylization over its story (though I don't think I've ever seen the streets of New York look as clean as they do in this film). I'm not a script-guy. I don't talk with people about "witty dialogue." Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco) irritates the shit out of me. I'm also not a "hip reference" sort of guy either. Quentin Tarantino also bugs the fuck out of me. Yet both of these elements totally work here. The dialogue is hysterical, without question along the lines of some of Woody Allen's best work (the Allen comparison doesn't end here... keep reading). And the hip references -- Daniels' character often makes hauty references to F. Scott Fitzgerald and remarks that a woman in the film "resembles a young Monica Vitti"... cleverly enough, though the character is never pointed out, in the background of the following scene, there's indeed a girl who bears a striking resemblance to Signora Vitti) -- those hip references are never to show off how film- and literary-savvy Baumbach is; all the references simply work in shaping the Daniels and his effect on his son (Jesse Eisenberg).
So where does The Squid and the Whale go wrong? My friend Stewart commented on the similarities between Junebug and Thumbsucker once. He said it was really hard to understand what we were supposed to take from either film. They present themselves as intimate portraits, but try to tackle too many characters (most of which within the family structure) for us to really grab ahold of anyone. The Squid and the Whale, thankfully, does not fall under the same trappings. The four central characters (Daniels, Eisenberg, Laura Linney, Kevin Kline's son Owen) grow onscreen beyond a mere sketch, their growth not necessarily in a "learning" sense but in a interior painting sort of way. We understand them as humans more than we do as characters, though the even separation in the family (Daniels/Eisenberg vs. Linney/Kline) does seem rigidly scripted. Instead, the real downfall here (though the fall isn't hard enough for me not to recommend this film to others) is Baumbach's incorrect assumption that poignancy cannot come from humor. What begins as a film with easily the most consistently hilarious dialogue of the past year ends humorless and purposefully vague (though almost existing for the satisfaction of the literary viewer). It feels as if once Baumbach wanted to give us the emotional conclusion to his tale, he had to axe the funny (Luke Wilson's suicide attempt in The Royal Tenenbaums comes to mind, here). As Annie Hall proves (not my favorite Allen, but certainly a good counter for this film), a comedy doesn't have to put a pause on its humor once the director decides to get to its emotional core. The Squid and the Whale's conclusion certainly doesn't kill the film, though it'd be nice to see if Baumbach learns from his mistakes here and creates something as good as his promise.