The Squid and The Whale reviewed by Armen Svadjian

Film / Video Reviews
The Squid and The Whale reviewed by Armen Svadjian
Dec 21, 2007, 18:40

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE directed by Noah Baumbach; 2006, Sony Pictures

Brat Pack and Chuck Norris fiends notwithstanding, few look back on Hollywood cinema of the 1980s with much fondness. At least one critic will tell you that decade was concerned only with “the restoration of the Father and of the structures of patriarchal organization.” Which is roughly true, granted one remembers such anomalies as Larry Cohen, Brian de Palma, George Romero, et al, whose willfully radical commercial flops helped in their own small way to right—or rather, left—the ideological balance. But the Zeitgeist is a fickle thing indeed. And while the recent commercial and critical gold struck by The Departed and The Bourne Ultimatum may point to some growing cult of M. Damon, surely a large part of their appeal derives from how more or less thoroughly each movie runs a symbolic dad through the wringer. So how come the shift in values, in taste? What exactly got us here? Growing dissatisfaction with the Bush administration would be the obvious answer—pat sounding, yes, but by no means inaccurate. However, now that dad-baiting movies have become the norm and no longer serve their previous corrective function, they must, if I can indulge in a bit of oversimplification, get by on “strictly” aesthetic merits.

An acolyte of Wes Anderson's with several features already behind him, Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale hit it off real well with the Sundance set. It might be classified as a bad father film, and despite its limited budget is far superior to The Departed and The Bourne Ultimatum, lacking many elements prominent in these other not unintelligent films: Scorsese's childish insistence on dragging Oedipus into everything; the unbearably operatic performance he coaxes out of Nicholson; Greengrass's attention-deficit editing; and so on. By contrast, Baumbach's film is naturalistic, shot and edited to feel like a documentary, with extraordinarily strong performances chipped in from young and old alike. Since Mr. Jealousy, Baumbach has acquired a real skill for keeping viewers at a critical yet sympathetic distance from his protagonist. Our hero is Walt, a teenaged Baumbach alter-ego and the director's most psychologically compelling character yet; a patriarchal monster in embryo who several times made my stomach turn in self-recognition. The film also features a number of great awkward comic moments, of the kind one finds in abundance in a movie like Budd Boetticher's Seven Men from Now, only where Boetticher's strategy is to let tension run its course, Baumbach often favors the shock effect, that is, abruptly jumping ahead to another scene while viewers are still attempting to process some strange occurrence or statement. The film is very much a personal project for its director, overtly autobiographical (this in turn justifying its appropriately rough documentary “look”), at times bravely so: you will recall that Walt's final words, spoken in the hospital immediately before the climactic symbolic reconciliation scene at the Natural History Museum, amount to a complete rejection of his father, a rejection no doubt shared by Baumbach.

The film's treatment of the father character is also its great weakness. Jeff Daniels's performance—as a once-promising academic and creative writer who feels himself being eclipsed by his wife—is virtually flawless, supplying the film with some of its funniest and most insightful moments. And who knows, Baumbach's father may well have been every bit the pompous jerk he's shown to be here. But I wonder if this kind of literalness matters when it hampers the movie. The Squid and the Whale is positively flush with generosity for its imperfect characters, but never seems able to muster any for dad. Whenever Baumbach tries to make us see from the father's perspective, to feel towards him something besides contempt, he can't. Whereas this kind of magnanimity comes so naturally to a Rohmer or a Renoir, even in their minor works, that their human monsters are apportioned a tiny share of the overall truth that belongs to the movie and so become, if not redeemable, here and there intelligible. But what artist can remain perfectly disinterested with such personal material? And it is ever reasonable to ask that an artist show his characters true grace? I don't think so—though it would have made an already great movie that much greater.

-Armen Svadjian

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