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The Squid and the Whale (2005 - R)

"The Squid and the Whale" is a short drama/comedy (yes, it's nuanced and very "Indy") about the trails one family undergoes after the parents decide to divorce.  Part coming-of-age, part tour de force, the film captures the individual struggles, alliances, and transformations of each of the family members throughout their Bohemian life in 1980's Brooklyn, NY.

The cast includes: Laura Linney, Jeff Daniels, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, and Anna Paquin.

Written and directed by: Noah Baumbach.

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Genre: Drama, Comedy.

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Based on the personal childhood experiences of director and writer, Noah Baumbach, the film sets the stage in 1980’s Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY.  Isolated from Manhattan, Slope Park was privy to Bohemian counter culture and all things “artsy,” including the film’s main characters, the Berkman family.

Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) are two, very different writer ingénues.  It doesn’t take long to see that the film is set in a time where the former is experiencing a sudden rise in professional status, while the latter still lingers over the scraps of former successes.  Thus the stage is set for friction: a battle of the sexes, of home and hearth, of joint custody over the kids, after their parents decide that their avaricious appetites for success and their personal appetites, (for love, lust, whatever), have somewhat changed after however many years of marriage.

So the audience is walking into a slow, meandering time bomb that ticks away, preparing for the demolition of the Bernard family.  At the moment of explosion however, that being the moment Bernard and Joan confess to their two children; Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), that they want a divorce, all those little things kept covert are suddenly unveiled.  It is time for overt hatred, word duels, battle of the sexes, and sibling rivalries.  It is time for normalcy to ensue.

While each Berkman member grapples to deal with the newfound reality that a separation is taking place, alliances between child and parent are formed, and tension mounts.  Mesmerized by every intoxicating word of wisdom (however blind and prejudiced) to come out of his father’s mouth, Walt quickly blames his mother and abandons her to her own conscience.  Meanwhile the younger of the two boys, Frank, still feels the anxiety of leaving the nest, and clings to his mother for safe haven. 

While Walt grows increasingly coarse, and even begins to resemble and exude a bit of his father’s prejudices, and at times, his ignorance, Frank begins to display his unease with the situation via pre-pubescent sexual indiscretions and faulty attempts at early entrance into manhood. 

Meanwhile Walt deals with his frustrations, both sexual and personal, by taking on a new relationship with the innocent Sophie (Halley Feiffer).  But things get complicated when one of Bernard’s aspiring students, not much older than Walt, decides to move in and make herself comfortable in Bernard’s new home.  Confused, Walt contemplates pursuing things with roommate Lilli (Anna Paquin), that is, until he discovers that his dad has already seized the opportunity.  Now alone, Walt is left to grapple with the repercussions of his selfish, and again, ignorant decisions to always try and one-up his life, and relationships- like father, like son. 

As for his brother, while Walt wrestles with his own head & heart, Frank begins to take comfort, after a night of rebellious debauchery and some intestinal pyrotechnic aftermath, in the newfound friendship with his mother’s new beau, and his current tennis coach, Ivan (William Baldwin). 

Of course many a witty banter, wild raves, and family tiffs ensue.  Siblings hug, hate, and hug some more, and lots of tension and unspoken accusations amount to a whole lot of nothing: the family is slowly learning to deal with the daily grind of divorced parenting and joint custody.  The only resolution is the acceptance of the situation, which comes neither swiftly nor easily.  Towards the end of the film narrative shifts its focus and, for an instance, its motive, to Walt whereby the audience watches a boy emerge a man upon discovering the courage to finally confront “the squid and the whale” within familiar borders.

On a whole this film is quite poignant.  It’s terse when necessary, quixotic when appropriate, realistic all the time, and multi-dimensional.  It deals with the raw, the real, and the heavy, without a shy eye or timid hand.  The camera catches the truths behind broken families and their daily struggle to cope with severed ties; unabashedly, unapologetically, and as honestly as possible.  

A hypnotic mix of Pink Floyd and a techno-Indy score perfectly blend with the eclectic Bohemian vibe of the film.  Cinematographically speaking, there is only so much a cast and crew can do with a budget as tight as Baumbach’s.  Yet, his massive personal undertaking proves successful with the right mix of lighting, realism, natural setting, and of course, a deft cast. 

Muddy browns, mute greens, cracked walls, and peeling parchment wallpaper all make physically manifest the psychological and emotional deterioration and toil; the fight within each individual member of the Berkman family.  Particularly, Bernard’s move from upscale Park Slope, Brooklyn to a downtrodden abode highlight only too obviously the insistent decline of both his personal and professional life.  Meanwhile, the up-&-coming authoress, the serendipitous lucky lady, Joan Berkman’s success is exploited in her stable situation: secure home, new furniture, new beau.  She’s moved on, and up…without a man who once thought (and probably still does) it inconceivable that the world should continue to evolve without him in the picture, or behind the reigns. 

Laura Linney is simply mesmerizing in her performance.  In the stripped, raw guise of a conflicted woman: half-enticed by the newfound pleasures and successes of her personal and professional lives, half disgusted with the thought of her abandoning her domestic responsibilities, Linney takes on the challenge of accurately portraying Baumbach’s own mother during, what was presumably, the nadir of his childhood.  In this film she is, above all, human.  She revels in the tiny joys, despairs for her family, most importantly her kids, and wrestles with the thought of finally living for herself: her joys, her sorrows, her passions, for once in her life.  And yet, at times, isn’t she, if only for a moment, just a little too selfish, a little too willing and ready to move on, a little too complacent with the current state of affairs, (and her many former affairs), and their psychological repercussions for her children?  But just as much, doesn’t she also convey the guilt, the sorrow, the regret for the passing of grander days of old, of memories long gone, of better yesterdays, while still hoping for brighter tomorrows?

Likewise Jeff Daniels is riveting in his over-the-top performance as Bernard Berkman.  He is anything but Harry Dune [Dumb and Dumber (1994)] in this film.  Rather, he sinks his teeth into the role of the cultured but soulless Bernard Berkman: a man with an answer to anything and everything, except his own personal crises.  He is cultured, literate, witty, and, he is a pompous ass.  He is ignorant; blinded by his own high horse and the too-big britches he’s willingly dressed himself in for what is presumably the better part of his marriage to Joan.  Daniels is the perfect combination of austerity and grandeur in his portrayal.  He brings an element to Bernard that makes him as despicable as he is intoxicating: you love him, you love him not.  Too proud to admit defeat, to pompous to admit rejection, Bernard is a man who continues to flounder with such poise, such grace, such a willingness to deny all and atone for nothing.  In the end it’s hard to imagine a more conflicted character.  And yet, despite his faults, one empathizes.  Perhaps it’s that tender smile, that “Papa bear” hearty feel-good-ness that Daniels brings to his many roles that allows that empathy between his character and the audience to transpire.  Whatever the case, Daniels has hopefully made Berkman proud. 

Of the younger actors partaking in the film one can only note that Owen Kline is simply astounding in his portrayal of the troubled Frank Berkman.  Jesse Eisenberg is en pointe with his blend of cynicism, crassness, asceticism, and his ability to transform.  He effortlessly portrays the transition from angst ridden teen to a clairvoyant young man with a newfound perspective on life- Coincidence that Kafka was such a prominent reference in the film?  I think not.

 “The Squid and the Whale” is, above all, real.  There is a glimmer of hope, and it is touchingly raw and “human”: the film, rather than shadowing the nuances (both good and ugly) of universal human nature (both male and female), revels in its sexist, complex, ambiguous, distorted, hopeless, and yet hopeful resonances of the human heart within the walls of a broken down 1980’s nuclear family.  It is Bohemia, Brooklyn, and Baumbach at their best!

Though an (extremely) low-budget Indy film, “The Squid and the Whale” managed to garner a 2006 Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay (Noah Baumbach).  Likewise the film snagged another 14 wins and 17 nominations.  Among its accolades are 3 Golden Globe nominations: Best Motion Picture, Best Male Lead (Jeff Daniels), Best Female Lead (Laura Linney); Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, National Society of Film Critics, New York Film Critics Circle, and the National Board of Review Award for Best Screenplay (Baumbach); and the Sundance Film Festival’s Director Award for Best Director in a Dramatic film (Baumbach) and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (Baumbach).   

Main Characters:

Laura Linney plays Joan Berkman, the blooming wife.

Jeff Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, the disgruntled husband.

Owen Kline plays Frank Berkman, the younger son.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Walk Berkman, the elder son.

William Baldwin plays Ivan, ex-tennis champ and Joan’s new beau.

Anna Paquin plays Lilli, the conspicuous student.

Memorable Lines: 

“Joint custody blows.”

Jacob: “I always had to cover my eyes when we got to the point with the squid and the whale ‘cauz I was so afraid to see them fighting.”