ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Squid and the Whale (2005) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)
At the start of The Squid and the Whale we see the four members of the Berkman family: mother Joan (Laura Linney), father Bernard (Jeff Daniels), elder son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and younger son Frank (Owen Kline) involved in a tennis match. When the ball served by Bernard accidentally hits Joan hard in the arm we can see that tensions run high in this New York family. Sometime afterward, the two parents call their offspring for a house meeting: they announce that they are to get divorced, and have agreed to joint custody of the children.
However, the drama has only begun as the two children find that they each prefer a specific parent; the intellectual, music and literature-inclined Walt prefers to stay with his writer/English lecturer father, while the younger Frank is more inclined towards the company of his mother. Things are further complicated when Joan starts seeing the family’s tennis coach Ivan (William Baldwin) while Bernard allows a cute student named Lili (Anna Paquin) to take up a spare room in his new home. Bernard and Lili’s relationship begins to take on a more physical dimension, causing friction with Walt who also has his eye on her (despite already dating Sophie, played by Halley Feiffer). Frank meanwhile is going completely off the rails, masturbating in public places and drinking alcohol at home.
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A low-budget account focussing on the effect of divorce upon a traditional family, The Squid and the Whale feels rather lumpy and prone to indie movie idiosyncrasies. Much of it is raw and compelling in its own way, and the line “joint custody sucks” opined by one of Walt’s classmates is certainly borne out by the events displayed onscreen. However, writer/director Noah Baumbach seems to lack an ability to shape the various dramatic strands into anything like a well-rounded or well-resolved story. This is particularly evident when the pubescent, barely adolescent Frank is seen downing beers and liquor or rubbing semen over a school locker. His behaviour is pretty extreme for someone of his age (and almost borders into gross-out comedy at times; he’s seen early on putting a peanut up his nose at the dinner table), and potentially life-threatening (he vomits and passes out in the bathroom at one point), and yet they remain as little more than a string of illustrative incidents without fully coming to a logical conclusion within the collective family story.
There are also too many obvious metaphors: the fraught tennis and ping-pong matches, the Pink Floyd song “Hey You” (with its significant lyrical refrain “divided we fall”), the titular squid and whale that Walt remembers from a childhood visit to the Museum of Natural History. Yes, we get it already.
However, the well-drawn characters and performances do save the film somewhat. Jeff Daniels is outstanding playing a clearly intelligent man, but one loaded with an underlying resentful rage at those whom he perceives don’t fully appreciate his intellectual worth. Laura Linney once again puts a huge emotional range on display; her scenes of breakdown at the situation she has fallen into with her family feels spontaneous and layered. The family’s younger members are great too; Jesse Eisenberg might be undergoing something of a critical backlash right now in the wake of Batman vs Superman but here he manages very well in conveying a young man who has inherited some of his father’s intellect and rage - but also an ultimate sense of remorse as his own experiences with Sophie teach him about the darker side of relationships. The real revelation perhaps is Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) as a boy whose coping mechanisms all too clearly reflect what must be a horrific situation for someone of his age.
Runtime: 81 mins
Dir: Noah Baumbach
Script: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Laura Linney, Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Anna Paquin, Halley Feiffer
The low-budget feel and bleached, autumnal hues of the picture aren’t exactly a show-off of the Blu Ray format - but are quietly impressive in this print.
The Pink Floyd soundtrack and fireworks-laden dialogue are represented well here. There’s a real “being there” feel imbued by the clarity of the sound that adds impact to the unfolding drama.
A booklet featuring an essay by Kent Jones and a 2005 interview with Baumbach by Jonathan Lethem. The former discusses the film’s four bravura performances, the shifting relationships between its characters and its use of the New York backdrop. The latter has Baumbach talking about the casting, how he derived the story from the actual breakup of his own parents, and his comparison between the New York he grew up in vs. the more gentrified present-day incarnation. For added emotional resonance, the director had Jeff Daniels dress up in his dad’s clothes, conducted filming ash the locations of his childhood and so on. It’s an engrossing look at how film life and real life can intertwine so heavily.
On the disc itself are the following extras, most of which were produced by Criterion in 2016 specifically for this release:
Interview with Noah Baumbach
An interview conducted in New York in 2016 with the director. He talks about how his own anger at childhood powerlessness inspired him. He also discusses his collaboration with producer Wes Anderson (who made his own, very different, portrait of family dysfunction in The Royal Tenenbaums - also given a recent Criterion release in the UK), as well as his directorial approach involving the rough intimacy of the hand-held camera, the Cassavetes-style abruptness in dialogue and his use of his old neighbourhood and childhood memorabilia. An intelligent and frank interview that complements the film well.
Revisiting “The Squid and the Whale”
Another 2016 Criterion exclusive featuring Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline and Laura Linney. They talk about their roles and the experience of shooting on a rough indie movie. They also reveal how tough the tennis scene was on the tight shooting schedule, and how their training failed miserably when it came to the actual filmed game.
Another 2016 interview, this time conducted with Jeff Daniels in Michigan. He describes The Squid and the Whale as “a drama that happens to be funny”. He talks about how he related to his character’s sense of being under-appreciated after seeing how some of his co-stars on other movies have ended up getting $15 million a movie whereas he has been left behind on considerably smaller salaries. He also describes his surprise at being told that Anna Paquin will be his lover during this film since they last worked together in Fly Away Home when she was just 12 years old. He’s a likeable and down-to-earth interviewee.
Footage of auditions for five key scenes in the film, mostly between Jesse Eisenberg and his onscreen girlfriend Haley Feiffer. The home video camera-style audiovisual quality makes it hard to appreciate the footage, and on the whole it’s pointless filler on this otherwise solid extras list.
Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips
A 2016 conversation between Noah Baumbach and the film’s two composers. They talk about how they put their musical heads together (Baumbach with his love of 1970s rock, and Wareham and Phillips with their love of cooler 1980s stuff) and came up with the soundtrack choices for the film.
Behind “The Squid and the Whale”
A 2005 documentary photographed by Nico Baumbach and featuring on-set footage plus interviews with the main cast. It’s a somewhat brief and slight affair compared with the (chronologically) later docs but gives an interesting glimpse of the indie working conditions with a tiny crew in cramped locations.
I’m not a great fan of the film although I appreciate its intentions and its performances. However, it’s worth a purchase for the wealth of exclusive extras.