Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline
Studio: Sony Pictures 13494
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, English/French
Subtitles: English, French
Extras: Director’s Commentary, Behind the Scenes Featurette, Interview with Director Noah Baumbach and writer Phillip Lopate, Previews (11)
Length: 81 minutes
The Squid and the Whale, an independent film receiving three Golden Globe nominations for best picture and acting, begins with the disintegrating marriage of Joan and Bernard Berkman, two very self-absorbed New York writers who should perhaps have remained childless. The film’s story, set in Brooklyn in 1986 and semi-autobiographical from Noah Baumbach, writer and director, mostly comes from the perspective of Frank and Walt, two adolescent brothers, devastated by their parents’ separation.
Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels do a superb job of portraying Joan and Bernard. This character-driven film, winning five awards for best screenplay in 2005, is a profound exploration of the misery which the joint custody experience frequently is for kids. Though classified as a comedy, it’s clearly a sad one.
The supporting cast includes William Baldwin as the local tennis pro who eventually becomes a romantic interest of Joan’s, Anna Paquin as Lili, a young seductive student of Bernard’s with whom he becomes superficially involved and Halley Feiffer as Sophie, Walt’s girlfriend for a brief time. Most of the scenes are brief and flow perfectly from one to the next with the help of a script that’s like real conversation.
Early in the film Joan and Bernard explain to their shocked sons that the marriage is ending and they will be living with each parent half of the time. Even the cat’s time will be split between the two residences. Not yet a successful writer, Bernard is not able to offer much of a second home. But more importantly, Bernard offers little as a father with real caring and guidance. Neither parent can understand why their split should be such a big deal for the boys. Joan asks them, “Aren’t most of your friends’ parents divorced?” Things go from civilized to savage from all sides as everyone’s hurt.
Walt, who adores his father, blames everything on his mother and lashes out at her in a variety of ways. The younger Frank is not so impressed with Bernard and is quick to defend Joan. Their evolving perceptions are at the heart of the film and much of the strength of the film comes from the the story being told from their perspective. Both Joan and Bernard are dreadful parents, though Joan is a bit more of a sympathetic character. At least she has some awareness of her failings. Bernard is completely clueless. He’s also laughably pompous, like when he asks Walt in regard to one of his teachers they both disdain, ” Does he know both your parents have a Ph.D. in literature?”
The character of Bernard is a fascinating study of someone who is focused almost completely on demanding that others take care of him on every level. He’s articulate and intellectual but cannot communicate from his heart. He consistently uses language to manipulate and craves admiration. Bernard’s art is everything to him and he cannot fathom why Joan would become interested in someone who isn’t intellectual. We want to see some evidence that Bernard might develop some heart.
Slowly Walt begins to see his father in a different light. His perceptions are a kind of coming of age. The meaning of the title becomes more clear as the film progresses. The ending is abrupt, satisfying and real.
The extras are well worth viewing. The audio commentary is not the usual requiring re-watching the film with the director and others talking over it. Baumbach presents various tidbits about the making of the movie over stills. That’s refreshing and it works well. I found particularly interesting his discussion of the casting and working with the various actors. The interview with the director and the writer at the New York Film Festival goes a bit long but contains interesting observations, mostly about the characters played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney. The featurette features mainly Daniels, Linney and Baumbach discussing the film with some included scenes.
Though shot in the economical Super-16mm format, the image does not suffer in the transfer to DVD. Colors have depth and vibrance and darker areas show detail. Given that the acting, direction, screenplay, editing and cinematography are all first rate, I would say this film deserves five stars.