Sometimes a movie speaks to me so truthfully and so personally that I can’t figure out if it’s a great film or just one that greatly resonates with me. After thinking about it a lot (and I mean a lot), I’ve come to the conclusion that The Squid and the Whale is a great film, a brilliant film, and one of the year’s best films.
Through one of those things that happens in the film business, writer and director Noah Baumbach is best known to audiences as the co-writer of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, and not as the writer and director of a couple of very solid films in the 90s (including the impossible to find Kicking & Screaming – the one without Mike Ditka). It’s going to draw him unfair comparisons to Wes Anderson, especially since The Squid and the Whale treads seemingly similar territory as Anderson’s films – odd families in crisis. But there really is no comparison, and honestly any comparison between The Squid and the Whale and any Wes Anderson film will be unfair to the Anderson film, as The Squid and the Whale is much better than any of them.
Baumbach’s story is apparently based on his real experience of his parent’s divorce. Jeff Daniels is Bernard Berkman, a pompous writer whose better days may be behind him. He’s now teaching at a community college, looking for a new literary agent. Laura Linney is Joan, his wife. She’s been trying her hand at writing as well, and it turns out that her unhappy marriage has led her to affairs. Walt is their oldest son, and he worships the very ground his father walks on. The youngest, Frank, is much more his mother’s child. The first line of the film is “Me and mom against you and dad,” said at a family tennis game, and that defines the lines that are drawn as the divorce tears at the Bermans.
I hate writing about movies that I really love. My own words are clumsy and stupid, and I feel like my inability to express why I love the film tarnishes it. So I have to ask you in advance to forgive my feeble words.
What’s really amazing is how Baumbach gives separate life to each of these characters. The script for The Squid and the Whale is just a joy, with some of the best dialogue I have heard in ages. Today we often consider something snappy and memorable to be good dialogue, but where Baumbach wins is making each of these people sound so distinctive. Bernard is given to using the phrase “filet” too often (like, “The house is the filet of the neighborhood”), and it’s little tics like that which elevate the characters out of being characters and into being people.
Jeff Daniels delivers the performance of his career as Bernard. Insufferable and pretentious, yet wounded and scared, Daniels makes the character funny and annoying and lovable all at once. He’s buried behind a thick writerly beard, constantly delivering pronouncements. It’s the performance that makes you forget he was ever in a film called Dumb & Dumber.
Linney’s Joan is another wonderful, fully realized character. Her infidelity keeps her from being just the saintly wife, and Linney’s natural charm and beauty and depth keep her likable, even as we learn just how many affairs she’s had.