The opening scene of “The Squid and the Whale” forshadows the eventual plot proceedings of the entire film. Frank (Owen Kline) is on one side of a tennis court with his mother Joan (Laura Linney), hitting balls back to Frank’s brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and their father Bernard (Jeff Daniels). Bernard takes the game far too seriously, cursing at himself for missing shots and even instructing Walt how to take advantage of one of his mother’s weaknesses with the sport. It should be friendly and jovial but Bernard is elevating it to a jocular activity, a demonstration of his strength and stamina, instead of a fun time out for the family.
Coincidentally, the jocular types are the ones who Bernard detests most, and the ones who his ex-wife becomes most drawn to after their divorce. Bernard is an accomplished author and scholar and fancies himself an intellectual, criticizing those who don’t hold such an esteemed appreciation of literature and the fine arts. It’s definitely hypocrisy and self-loathing on his part, but these faults don’t make Bernard the villain of this movie, as Joan herself committed transgressions during the course of their marriage.
But really, the film isn’t so much about who’s right vs. wrong as much as the divorce effects the family dynamic altogether. Walt grows a very fractured view on his interactions with women after observing his dad’s behavior, even disdaining his own mother, and Frank experiments with alcohol and his own body after lacking the guidance of a proper parent. And the family’s value of intelligence and creativity generates unique problems as well.
It’s a deeply intimate, raw and thoughtful portrayal of a family in flux, no longer nuclear but trying to maintain their relationships and realize their own responsibility in fracturing them. It shows Noah Baumbach’s very keen understanding of New York, how living in a city with such accomplished figures as neighbors can manifest as insecurity in anyone who isn’t as lionized in their field. While New York isn’t so much a character like it is in Baumbach’s other films as just the setting, The Squid and the Whale remains his most authentic New York story, not so much worried about telling a New York story as much as how New York impacts a story.
I think that because Baumbach’s movies are both quirky and New York-centric, he received a lot of comparisons to Woody Allen, with his later films like Frances Ha and Mistress America feeling very much akin to an Allen flick, with Greta Gerwig substituting for Diane Keaton. While Frances Ha was great, Mistress America in particular feels too much like Baumbach trying to make a Woody Allen-esque. We’ll have to wait and see if the soon-to-be-released The Meyerowitz Stories carries the same feel of Mistress America or if its a true, original, NYC masterpiece. Until then, The Squid and the Whale remains his finest film, a raw, poignant family drama that isn’t afraid to show just how messy and hurtful divorce can be, and that its up to the characters to make their own happy ending out of this once the credits role.