Family Matters

Nothing reveals the fissures of a family heading for trouble more readily and efficiently than friendly intramural competition. Just ask anyone who has ever suffered through “board-game night.” Doubles tennis, not Monopoly, is the game of choice for the Berkmans, and in the opening scene of his third feature, writer-director Noah Baumbach deploys the zones of a tennis court to map the allegiances and lines of combat along which this family of four will soon splinter. Divorce and its aftermath are the grist for a mill of sardonic humor and piercing emotion in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s first directorial outing since 1997’s Mr. Jealousy. Surprisingly, Baumbach’s sensibilities haven’t ossified during his sabbatical. If anything, they’ve grown sharper. While his ear for honest dialogue was evident in his debut feature, the smart, Gen-X gabfest Kicking and Screaming (1995), in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach weds his verbal gifts to a fresh visual acuity that brings layers of rich detail to a portrait of a family coping, poorly, with self-inflicted change. Set in Park Slope, Brooklyn, circa 1986, the film has the feel of flipping through an old magazine — specifically, The New Yorker — as the Berkmans swim in a middle-class intellectual world of brownstones, Volvos, tweed and tennis pros.

To read Scott Foundas' interview with director Noah Baumbach, click here.

To read Ella Taylor's interview with Jeff Daniels, click here.

A thickly bearded Jeff Daniels plays Bernard, the Berkmans’ frizzy and fizzling patriarch, as emotionally clueless as his character in Dumb and Dumber. Once a successful author, Bernard has been reduced to teaching creative writing and picking up agent contacts from his students. To prop up his deflated ego, he drops names (“That’s Mailer’s favorite of my books”) and pedantic criticism (“A Tale of Two Cities is lesser Dickens”), not to mention the sexist relationship advice doled out to his idolizing 16-year-old, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), who proves a quick study in flip arrogance. When Walt gets called out for passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own composition in a student talent show — one of the film’s many crystalline moments of adolescent peevishness — Walt dismisses the charges: “I felt I could have written it.” Which, of course, makes perfect sense to Bernard. The obviousness of Bernard’s failure as a parent draws laughter early on, as Daniels lies back and allows his previous nice-guy persona to lull us into the reassuring belief that Bernard’s self-centered indifference is the harmless quirk of an arrogant clown. Only gradually do we come to recognize the unarticulated hurt left in Bernard’s wake. And those laughs grow increasingly nervous.For all Walt’s father worship, it’s his mother, Joan (Laura Linney), who may be the clan’s ascendant genius. She initiates the divorce that sets the film’s story reeling but quickly discovers that the sweetest revenge on a literary egoist is getting your own first novel published by Knopf. Linney plays the long-suffering Joan with the defensive edge of a woman forced to break free or disappear entirely. But of all the Berkmans, 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) most elicits our sympathy. Though he gravitates to Joan as the family’s center breaks apart, he proves the most adrift and ill-equipped to cope with the agony of choosing sides.Baumbach mainstreams us into the particular trauma of divorce by presenting us with complex characters, none of whom is blame-free and all of whom suffer, while his roving, intimate camera evokes the primal anxiety of a child listening to his parents whispering angrily in an adjacent room. It’s not always a comfortable place to be — indeed, ambivalent choices about whom to root for are what we typically go to the movies, at least Hollywood movies, to avoid — and Baumbach walks a tightrope between drawing us in and losing us altogether. He occasionally stumbles, but he never falls.If this story of an intellectual New York family on the skids sometimes seems familiar, it’s because Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums is such an obvious touchstone. Indeed, Anderson served as one of Squid's producers. While Walt’s flirtation with plagiarism suggests that the fear of influence may have been on Baumbach’s mind, the finished film displays an assured looseness in framing and deliberate openness in story that one suspects had the more meticulous Anderson pulling his hair out. Where Anderson’s family sagas, for all their turmoil, never leave us in doubt that we are on the path to reconciliation, Baumbach gives no such reassurance. It’s a risky move given the volatile emotions that the film stirs up, especially for a director who’s been away from the game for eight years. One might easily have expected Baumbach to choose something more audience-friendly. The fact that he didn’t makes his return all the more welcome.THE SQUID AND THE WHALE | Written and directed by NOAH BAUMBACH | Produced by WES ANDERSON, PETER NEWMAN, CHARLES CORWIN and CLARA MARKOWICZ | Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films | At Laemmle Sunset 5, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pacific Sherman Oaks Galleria and Laemmle Monica 4-Plex


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