“All that work I did at the end of our marriage, making dinners, cleaning up, being more attentive. It never was going to make a difference, was it?” — Bernard
I say you can’t spend your life digesting only good and morally upright stories, you need to witness a few that feature pompous, wrong-headed people so you understand contrasts in the universe. The mordantly funny masterpiece The Squid and the Whale (2005) stars Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as divorcing parents of two boys, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline. The semi-autobiographical comedy-drama by writer/director Noah Baumbach reeks of mid-1980’s New York intellectual components. His take is a little meaner, gutsier and more hilariously profane than other family dysfunction films.
It starts with a family tennis match that’s about scoring, not fun. “Hit it at your mother’s backhand. It’s pretty weak,” Daniels tells his son. Within a few days, the parents tell their kids that they will be separating. Daniels and Linney agree on joint custody, but really it is an endless struggle to win favoritism from their kids.
Daniels, a career benchmark with this performance, has an oversized ego as a literary writer in a creative funk. As a father, he is constantly trying to influence his kids. Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” and “Great Expectations” are greater books than the school endorsed “A Tale of Two Cities.” Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” “The Wild Child” by Francois Truffaut. “Blue Velvet” at the cinemas over “Short Circuit.” Actress Monica Vitti. Tennis players Ille Nastase and John McEnroe. New York Knicks are the best NBA team. Agree with whatever Dad says or you lose his respect.
Linney isn’t a star parent either, sleeping with men indiscriminately. In particular, mom hooks up with her son’s tennis teacher (William Baldwin). “Who taught you these junkyard strokes?” Dad calls him a “half-wit” but still hits tennis balls with him. Later, judgmental Dad lets one of his college students Lili (Anna Paquin) room and board with him. He mentors his boys to play the field, sleep with a woman, but sheds commitment. Lili the risqué creative writer is an option, Dad muses. He possibly means to initially dispatch her for his son, but later, he makes a desperate play at her.
Eisenberg and Kline are flawless as the kids, both at an early stage of their sexual development/dysfunction, seized by adolescent confusion. Eisenberg’s first girlfriend (Halley Feiffer) is intelligent and affectionate, but he says to her face she has “too many freckles.” Kline spends too much time in front of the mirror gazing at his own pre-pubescent body, judging his sexual parts, with a Scotch glass in hand. That’s Tangerine Dream music from “Risky Business” (1983) on the soundtrack, you might be able to recall sexy imagery from that film. The youngest boy probably has remembered that film’s sexy imagery.
These boys are growing up too fast, too arrogantly. Eisenberg steals lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “Hey, You” and claims it as his own for a talent contest. Kline is masturbating at school at a pre-teen age, and wiping his semen on books and school lockers. “How do you know it was my boy’s?” Dad asks the principal, in doubt. Outside child counseling is a suggested remedy but Dad sneers at it.
Ultimately, Dad wants quick sex, his sons’ company when he’s lonely, to play tennis and ping-pong at a whim, and his wife to ask for forgiveness. He is always speaking in self-interest, putting down others, including educators that are below a college level. What does that do to his son Eisenberg? Here, the son thinks, just like his father, that he’s better than anybody that’s not a Ph.D. He sees himself as superior but hasn’t accomplished anything himself, he’s just a teen. Who is going to save Eisenberg, you ask? Before he turns into his father? He’s a bright boy, perhaps he will figure it out for himself. This film understands the epiphany of learning how to think for yourself when your parents are too narcissistic. Mom isn’t classy either, but Eisenberg does tell her there are some things he just doesn’t want to hear, especially when it comes to Mom’s reveries of how she took lovers how and where.
The film is perhaps asking you to sympathize with Eisenberg and Kline. Imperfect kids, but they are saddled with terrible role models as parents. I see it, these kids will outgrow their parents and become more “adult” at a younger age than most. All the movies and books they’ve seen and read might steer them more wisely. Maybe they will still turn into obnoxious smart-asses, who knows. But I got good faith in them. These are kids that are already capable of evaluating themselves and changing opinion.
The other Baumbach film I really like is “Greenberg” (2010) with Ben Stiller in a rare dramatic role as a likely borderline personality disorder case. If Baumbach sees himself as the Eisenberg character then it is presumed he started troubled before he bloomed into a great talent. Somehow he finds luminous humor in family turmoil. Instead of finding maudlin moments in the pain, he finds comedy.
81 Minutes. Rated R.
TWISTED COMEDY-DRAMA / MATURE TEENS / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979); “Shoot the Moon” (1982); “The War of the Roses” (1989); “Greenberg” (2010).