Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Squid and the Whale

Jeff Daniels is what Hollywood would refer to as a 'character actor'. In other words, he's a recognisable face, and reliable enough to turn in a decent performance, but perhaps not equipped with the adequate charisma to be a leading man, the star name top of the billing in a big-budget, flagship movie release. This label has little to do with acting ability, in common with the majority of casting decisions made in Tinseltown, but his career has certainly demonstrated an ability to tread softly and comfortably in the shadow of brighter stars. He was Keanu Reeves' partner in 'Speed', he coped admirably well opposite Jim Carrey in 'Dumb and Dumber', and he was the head of the family in 'Arachnophobia', to name but a few. The thing is, while leading men come and go, and tend to have tenuous relationships with their viewing public, the character actor's lot is altogether more secure. Indeed, Jeff Daniels has been working since the 80's amid a distinct lack of controversy, and has quietly built up an impressive resume.

In 2005, Daniels was a busy man, appearing in both the excellent 'Good Night and Good Luck' in yet another supporting turn, this time opposite George Clooney, but also in 'The Squid and the Whale' - shock! - as the leading actor. Oh wait a minute, it's a small indie flick, I get it now!

The Squid and the Whale is an austere drama about the fragmentation of a family, set against the backdrop of Brooklyn in the 80's. Daniels plays a formerly successful author, whose publishing run appears to have stalled, and is now teaching for a living. He is an intellectual snob, and disdainful of pretty much everyone without a Phd, whom he refers to as 'philistines' without a hint of irony.

Daniels' marriage to wife Joan (played by Laura Linney) has been on the rocks for some time, and finally splinters beyond repair in the first act of the movie. The break-up is complicated by the fact that Joan is now an author in her own right, and is beginning to be recognised as a serious writer, this recognition coincinding with Daniels' own downward career trajectory to the detriment of the relationship.

Unfortunately, the couple do not seem at all concerned with the effect of their break-up on their two sons, Frank and Walt. In true intellectual style, they discuss the terms of their new custody-sharing arrangements with the two boys in a rational, dignified manner, and when the young Frank, only a boy, breaks into tears, there is little tenderness shown to the boy from either parent. This theme continues throughout the picture, and Daniels' character displays a level of self-absorption and detachment from his kids that is really pretty despicable. The more time they spend in his company, the more his negative influence can be seen on their behaviour, and it's not long before things hit rock bottom for the whole family, and for the two boys in particular.

Noah Baumbach wrote 'The Squid and the Whale' as an autobiographical account of the break-up of his parents' marriage, and in my opinion, he has written a smart account of proceedings, but one that is fundamentally flawed. Daniels' character is pretty much the bad guy of the piece, and because PCMR would prefer to avoid employing pop psychology terminology in movie reviews, I'll simply say that Baumbach's parental issues have made an average movie, but not a great one.

Daniels' performance as Bernie, the downtrodden literary failure who perceives himself as superior to everyone else, and anyone who doesn't understand him as 'difficult', is quite good in the lead role. Laura Linney too, turns in half-decent support as ex-wife Joan. Of the two chips off the old block, Jesse Eisenberg is particularly good as the older of the two sons, Walt, and is the most interesting character in the movie. He viscerally experiences the break-up of his parents as an outsider to their relationship, and bears the brunt of his father's self-pity and anger at his wife, emotions which rub off on the boy, to the detriment of his relationship with his mother.

For some reason, perhaps it was the style so similar to something Wes Anderson would make (he has a 'producer' credit), I expected a Wilson brother to show up at any moment... William Baldwin has a look of Luke Wilson about him in this movie, and maybe that was the trigger for the thought.. Baldwin was pretty terrible in the role of the tennis instructor (obviously second choice when Wilson Brother II wasn't available).

So, overall, I wasn't particularly enamoured with this one. The script was smart and intellectual, sure, but like Walt in the movie, it had an air of pretentiousness about it. Also, the realistic style employed didn't sit too well with me when the younger of the two boys was suffering through a few bad moments from the psychological trauma of the break-up. There were a few scenes in the movie involving the young lad that were very difficult to watch, and I found it tough to reconcile their presence on-screen with the story as it progressed. Certainly, there was very little resolution offered, and these scenes, when they are eventually related to the boy's parents, appear to have little effect on them.

If The Squid and the Whale is a cautionary tale, it has a very obvious message: don't fuck up your kids. However, I think the real message in this movie is from Noah Baumbach, successful screen-writer, to his dad, failed author. This is the main reason I didn't really enjoy it all that much.

The verdict: Poignant in moments, great performance from Jesse Eisenberg, and a smart script, but ultimately, a little hollow for me.
The rating: 6/10

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I place my hands over your eyes
so that you will see the Natural History museum display
through the spaces between my fingers.
I tell you what I would like you to see..
a gentler rendition of the violent scenario frozen in our vision.
I know you will hear the pain thorugh his blind, twisted words.
I feel you confusion and sorrow...
I become angry that I cannot protect you from definitions of the truth..
Did both creatures become monsters or are they just fighting to live.
One day you may stand and see the tenticles in the whales teeth.
Someday you may see that it was where the Squid needed to be.

..........10/02/07 for my children

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