Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Family Hysterias

The Squid and the Whale, Starring Laura Linney, Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline, Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach, 2005

There ought to be some kind of term for excruciating comedies that make you cringe with horror and recognition. Likewise, there ought to be a term for amusing dramas that make you snort at how absurd people can act in the most serious of situations. If I had to guess, even money would be on there being a French term for both. Nevertheless, you will experience both conditions – sometimes simultaneously – while watching Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film The Squid and the Whale.

Son of two writers (the novelist Jonathan Baumbach and Village Voice critic Georgia Brown), Baumbach’s film is the story of two sons whose writer parents are divorcing. What starts out as a very rationally presented direction for the future begins to disintegrate as long simmering resentments bubble up in the parents and bad behavior by the sons begins to manifest itself in reaction.

The father, Bernard Berkman, well played here by Jeff Daniels, is a fading novelist who once rubbed elbows with great names in the literary life and now teaches writing classes and struggles even to find an agent. His wife, Joan Berkman, is played by Laura Linney, who is phenomenally good in her very subtle, very quiet way, as she is in simply everything with her name attached. Here her long smothered wife, serial adulterer, and budding novelist can come off as tender, smug, and selfish without once losing our sympathy. Bernard is a tougher creature to sympathize with, his pretentious opinions essentially correct yet delivered with such assured condescension that you want not to believe his judgment of books and films correct. When he says at a dinner conversation about Dickens, “What is it about high school? You read all the worst books by good writers,” the sentiment is generally inarguable. Yet Daniels manages to bring the kind of pomposity to his character that undermines our every chance of really feeling for him.

When Bernard moves out, schlepping across the park to another neighborhood, he describes his new place as the “filet of Prospect Park.” The sad truth of it is much more depressing. Bernard is coming down in the world and his ongoing insistence throughout his divorce that certain books he left behind in the house are his (Walt often steals them for him) is just one manifestation of his inability to let go, to face reality. He sadly continues throughout the film to convince others of a certain reality, as when he drops his sons’ hamburgers on the floor then serves them up anyway, denying what happened though one son saw him doing it. In a way, you understand Joan’s infidelity as an insistence on her own reality, divorced from her overbearing husband’s insistence.

The two parents, in the early days of the divorce while they were attempting civility, had divided up the week with “every other Thursday” acting as a balance to the uneven number of days in the week, going so far as to even divvy up where the cat will live in this joint custody experience. The discussion of the cat and the books and even what time Bernard will arrive are nasty little bits of fun that scenes can hinge on, suddenly turning into touching pathos. At one point, let into the house by his younger son, Bernard stares up at the bookshelf, realizing that his ex-wife still keeps copies of his early novels. Daniels holds this scene, freezing like a man caught up in his own bad dream, numb to the meaning of a moment, so caught up is he in the sensation of the moment.

Older son Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mess, a poseur who apes his father’s stances and opinions but without the experience to back it up. Alternately blazingly angry or simulating cool detachment, he spouts even the same phraseology of his father’s opinions and you simply cringe waiting for him to get caught. His stumbling relationship with classmate Sophie (Halley Feiffer) is marked by uncharming moments as when he tells her he wishes she had fewer freckles on her face. Delightfully ignorant of some things, when Sophie discusses “The Metamorphosis” with him, Walt sums the story up as “Kafkaesque.” His intellectual plagiarism takes him so far as to first, pre-divorce, play on guitar and take credit for the Pink Floyd song “Hey You,” then later repeat the act at the school talent show. It’s one thing to trick your highbrow parents with this stuff; it’s another kettle of fish to think you can brazen it out in front of a high school crowd.

As word of Joan’s repeated affairs gets out, Walt is thrown by the secret history of his parents and begins acting out of rage. He decorates his room at his father’s house with a poster for the French film The Mother and the Whore. He listens to his father’s advice that he can “play the field” and dumps sweet Sophie for the attention-seeking Lili, a writing student of Bernard’s. He goes ahead with his disastrous talent show plagiarism (later telling someone that he felt he “could have written it” so that another’s authorship was just a “technicality”). He denounces his mother at every opportunity. All the while, he believes that his wounded soul is well-hidden and his bitterness a sufficient mask.

His psychological crack up is nothing, though, compared to that which we are treated to by the almost autistic performance of Owen Kline as younger son Frank Berkman. At around twelve or thirteen, he takes up secret drinking and the even more disturbing habit of masturbating at school and spreading his semen over the spines of library books and lockers. His aid in this is a naughty picture torn from a magazine that he keeps on him at all times, in one scene even setting it on his chair at dinner with his father and brother, glancing down every now and then throughout the meal. His own personal drama comes to a head when Bernard goes away for a weekend reading at an upstate college, taking Walt with him and forgetting that Joan is also out of the town for the weekend. Left alone in his mother’s house for three days, Frank drinks himself into a stupor, passing out on the floor.

All of this sounds rather disturbed and seedy, yet the whole is saved by Baumbach’s amusing script that turns the minor indignities of life into savage dramas and the sad facts of unhinged adolescence into high, if bizarre, comedy. One of those talkative films that pack more character growth and development into its short eighty one minutes than many an epic manages in three hours, The Squid and the Whale feels longer than it is, but in a good way, as though you had watched a life play itself out in front of you. And in a way, you have.

1 comment:

Pompous in Oberlin said...

I had the good fortune to see Jeff Daniels' character materialize on the streets of Oberlin. Early in the fall term, when all the freshman accompanied by doting parents wander the two blocks of Oberlin's business district, I overheard one father, decked out in a flannel shirt and jeans, scruffy beard, point casually to a Subway restaurant and say with such pomp and pretension, "Ah, the ubiquitous Subway." Jeff Daniels couldn't have found a better study.