Thursday, December 29, 2005

Easy, my brother!

Jeff Daniels is painful to watch in The Squid and the Whale. Not because of any issues with his acting - it's his best performance since The Purple Rose of Cairo. His character, Bernard, is a struggling writer and English professor recently separated from his wife Joan (Laura Linney). What aches is that Bernard personifies every irritating trait of your average collegiate: he's pretentious, dismissive, elitist, self-important, and pompous. For Bernard, education is just a weapon for his passive-aggressive narcissism. He makes for a great movie character, yet I could not imagine spending more than five minutes in a room with Bernard before eating my own hands.

The Squid and the Whale is based in some part on writer/director Noah Baumbach's own parents, and while I can hardly say which parts are fact or fiction, it does resonate with the sort of truthfulness that can only be found by personal experience. It is about Bernard and Joan's separation, and the disparate effects it has on their children, teenaged Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and younger brother Frank (Owen Klein). The kids are shuffled back and forth between their parents' homes, and each pledges allegiance to a different parent, Walt to his father and Frank to his mother. Walt parrots his father's already unoriginal opinions (losing interest in reading A Tale of Two Cities after Bernard declares it to be "minor Dickens") and blames his mother for the breakup of the marriage. Frank devolves into a profane, drunken, onanistic "Philistine" (his father's preferred term for non-intellectuals), suffering a gradual breakdown accompanied by Tangerine Dream's sublime Risky Business score. Eventually, Joan begins dating Frank's tennis coach (William Baldwin, in a perfect bit of casting), and Bernard shacks up with a student (Anna Paquin) who writes banal erotica about her "cunt." And all along, their gray, matted cat stares silently, sleepy-eyed, quietly judging them.

At the emotional core of the film is Walt's brief, sad relationship with Sophie (Halley Feiffer), a classmate who loves Walt for exactly who he is. But the son of the professor is too dumb to see what is right in front of him - at one point he comments, "You have too many freckles." Fool. Sophie isn't as articulate as Walt, yet she's clearly more perceptive about people and relationships, and in the contrast between hers and Walt's families, we see how erudition can be a refuge for the emotionally damaged. Similarly, Bernard is unable to comprehend what Joan could see in Ivan the "Philistine;" Bernard and Walt are two alike souls at different stages of their uncomprehending slog.

I realize that none of this suggests what a hilarious movie The Squid and the Whale is. Lawrence Turman, the producer of The Graduate, recommended it to the Images audience in November. And like The Graduate, this film contains dozens of moments that are hilarious because of their lacerating honesty. And while Baumbach offers no easy resolutions for his characters, he does offer all of them (even Bernard) a good share of insight and understanding. When Bernard repeats a gesture from Breathless to his wife in a last-ditch stab at romance, she misses the reference. He's trying to say "I love you," but as he couldn't just say it, it's lost in translation. And when Walt gets in trouble for pawning off a Pink Floyd song as his own, defending himself by saying "It felt like I could have written it," we wonder why this poor misguided boy didn't just write his own song.

But in real life, of course, Baumbach eventually did. More than his earlier films, The Squid and the Whale is a kindred spirit of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, for which Baumbach co-wrote the screenplay. The two films share a fine-tuned sense of outrage at the sins of fathers. But unlike The Life Aquatic, which dooms the son, this film holds out hope that eventually, the son might run away from the father. The titular sculpture (actual title: Clash of the Titans - how cool is that?) scared Walt when he was a boy and would visit the New York Museum of Natural History with Joan; by the end, he can look at it with eyes wide open. It's a damn near perfect metaphor for marriage and parenthood; the fight may last forever, but in the end both titans are just struggling to stay afloat.

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