Title: The Squid and The Whale
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin, Halley Feiffer, David Benger, Adam Rose
Review: One of a series of smaller independent films startng Jesse Eisenberg along with “Adventureland” released during the period in which his star was unquestionably on the rise, especially after the success of both “Zombieland” and “The Social Network” while at the same time this was one of the last films in the golden period for American independent cinema. This is also a film which when it was released there seemed to be a time were all everyone wanted to talk about was this film, over for it over the years seemingly become all but forgotten perhaps due to Baumback remaining so fiercely a part of the independent scene as he drifted into making mumblecore films such as “Greenberg” and the equally underrated “Frances Ha”.
Produced by fellow indie darling Wes Anderson, this semi-autobiographical tale would at the time be seen as a real breakout film for Baumbach, no doubt due to the fact that despite the plot hardly sounding like the most fun time, somehow manages to craft here a story which is both frequently funny as it is engrossing. Here the boys are shown growing up with parents who are both academics and writers. Their father Bernard (Daniels) a former big name writer, struggling to deal with his fading celebrity who now teaches while frequently critical and opinionated when it comes to the work of others in particular their mother Joan (Linney) who he is especially keen to critise as her own writing career starts to take off as his own remains seemingly stalled. Walt meanwhile hero worships his father, frequently recycling his opinions to impress girls, while struggling to find his own area to excel in especially as he feels that he has to live up to his father’s legacy, regardless of the fact that he has been all but forgotten by most.
Once again channelling his brand quiet awkwardness Eisenberg once again gives us another great performance and one which never seems to carry across to his more mainstream films, which often feel like he is being forced to push the humour rather than rely on a more natural humour which is what he often does best as especially seen here especially as he plays Walt the wannabe academic. Often it feels like few opinions that Walt has are his own often rechurning his father’s opinions regards of if he has any reference for these opinions, disregarding Charles Dickens “Tale of Two Cities” as a minor work while raving about Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” despite not having read either and yet when caught out by calling Kafka Kafka-esq he is somehow able to charm his way out of the situation. This pursuit of acclaim also sees Walt trying to pass off a Pink Floyd song of as his own for the school talent contest, which when he is caught out serves to highlight the increasing divide between his parents. His father’s influence however doesn’t just stretch to opinions as he soon starts questioning his relationship with his girlfriend Sophie (Feiffer) after Bernard promotes the idea of sleeping with other women while his still young to his son, while in many ways begrudging his own life choices.
Elsewhere Frank whose seemingly happy charting his own path with dreams of playing professional tennis seemingly takes his parents’ divorce the worst as he starts secretly drinking and more shockingly engaging on a campaign of public masturbation which the less said about is probably the better. Such extreme actions coming with no real kind of explanation though other than perhaps a feeling of being overlooked during the ongoing turmoil with this being his attempt at getting attention especially when everyone is seemingly caught up in their own issues to focus on this youngest family member.
Unquestionably it’s a great cast which Baumbach assembles here with Daniels really working his dramatic skills as he refuses to accept that he is ever at fault, while embarking on a relationship of sorts with one of his students Lilli (Paquin) which screams mid-life crisis and who more creepily Walt is also trying to pick up at the same time. Its interesting to think at the same time that this role at one point had been considered for Bill Murray making me wonder if the role would have been played any differently had he took the role, especially when Daniels plays the role with such a hair trigger that the smallest thing can seemingly set off Bernard as we frequently see throughout the film. Equally on fun form is William Baldwin as the new age tennis coach Ivan with the habit of calling people brother and whom Joan embarks on a relationship with while generally seemingly like divorce really works for her, especially when it seems like a continual stream of positives that she gets from the divorce.
Due to its short runtime and tight editing the film never drags while its catalogue of awkward situation and interesting interactions keep things interesting, while the believability of the characters ensures that it never feels too fantastical especially when dealing with a family as dysfunctional as this while perhaps in many ways making this a spiritual sibling to producer Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”. At the same time the largely handheld shooting style gives the film as real fluid feel while adding to the indie charms of the film which deserves to be rediscovered rather than left to languish in its current seemingly forgotten status.