Noah Baumbach apparently had one of those childhoods that make for great stories and great films... but isn't any fun whatsoever to live through. His semi-autobiographical film The Squid and the Whale (which he both wrote and directed) goes a step beyond the surreal comedy of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and explores the depth that he and Wes Anderson (here credited as Producer) explored in that film. In fact, The Squid and the Whale is remarkably engrossing, both from the aspect of writing and directing. Baumbach pulls no punches in his telling of Family and Loss, inspired by his own life growing up in Brooklyn, and along the way he says so very much in so very few words, layering dialogue and direction into a multi-petaled rose.
Baumbach's alter ego is Walt Berkman (superbly played by emerging talent Jesse Eisenberg). Walt finds himself thrust fully formed into the twilight of his parents' marriage. His father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a professor and washed up novelist, who has a more than active passive aggressive relationship with his wife, up and coming novelist Joan (Laura Linney). Walt and little brother Frank (Owen Kline) have their stability removed by their parents divorce, and each gravitates to one, nearly forsaking the other.
Walt begins to emulate his father in every way that he can, adopting many of the more pretentious (and thinly veiled desperate) mannerisms that both compose and flaw Bernard. Meanwhile Frank is more than a little screwed up by the whole thing. Frank makes Walt look stable by comparison (at least at first), and begins to act out in some remarkably sexual and sick ways (that he doesn't quite understand). But as Joan starts to date her tennis instructor Ivan (William Baldwin, doing a fine job) and Bernard succumbs to sexy coed Lili (Anna Paquin), Frank becomes more self-destructive and Walt becomes more a creature of artifice, acting instead of living and posing instead of being.
As Walt's veneer of normalcy thickens, those around him (including his girlfriend Halley Feiffer's Sophie) begin to see that there is something wrong that goes beyond the merely phony. When a brief therapy session with a psychologist (Ken Leung) causes the proverbial light bulb to appear over Walt's head, he finds his own reality crumbling and starts questioning things for the first time. The change is stunning, both in the acting and in the writing.
It's the writing that really makes this entire movie work. It's a deep script Baumbach has written and one where seldom does any line mean merely one thing. It's no surprise that The Squid and the Whale was nominated for the 2005 Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. On the other hand, special mention must be made of Baumach's directing. He hasn't directed a film since 1997, but it doesn't show. Of course he has the benefit of not only having written (and in many ways LIVED) the script, and having a group of excellent actors form whom to pull these great performances. It should be noted though, that the script and directing do combine into an accessible, yet completely unconventional drama. When combined with the comedy The Squid and the Whale is almost impossible to look away from right up until the excellent ending which brands the title across the screen and the audience experience.
Every once in a while an unexpected comedy/ drama pops up and manages to gain the attention of Oscar, if not the main audience. Not everyone will appreciate the depth and the difference of this film... but those who don't... are philistines. One Half Stars Plus Four for The Squid and the Whale, the multi-meaning classy and psychological drama. I'd tell you more, but I want you to see it for yourself. Besides, I've got to close now. I've got to go call my mother. See you in the next reel!
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