' ' Cinema Romantico: The Squid and the Whale

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Squid and the Whale

(This is a re-posting of an entry originally written in November. Last night, however, I watched "The Squid and the Whale" for the second time. And - much like seeing Neko Case twice - it was fantastic the first time but downright incredible on the second go-around.)

On Sunday afternoon I attended a viewing of “The Squid and the Whale”. It was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, most recently the co-writer of “The Life Aquatic”. But he was also writer/director of the cult classic (a cult of which I’m part) “Kicking and Screaming”. His gift for extraordinary dialogue was evident with that feature and is still on display with his new one – but with the new one his ability to write deep, complex characters has strengthened notably.

The film is an autobiographical story detailing the divorce of 2 writers (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) and how it affects them and their two young sons. I've always favored rich characters over plot, and so this movie was a little slice of wonderful to me. The divorce sets things in motion but then it’s a series of vignettes without an over-abundance of arc. I mean, when is there ever a swooping character arc in real life? I only wish I had some kind of arc to my life.

The parents are sketched as two people who wanted to have kids but didn’t know what to do with the kids once they had them. The father particularly is a vivid characterization of someone who fancies himself a literary genius, providing advice to his son he probably thinks is very helpful. For instance, when his son notes his high school class is reading “A Tale of Two Cities”, the father makes the comment it’s merely “minor Dickens”. I did enjoy when the son invites his father to see “Short Circuit”, the father insists they see the new family friendly David Lynch movie “Blue Velvet”. Frightening as it is, I can totally see myself as a father nixing my son’s desire to see the latest Disney animated feature in order to drag him to the new Spike Lee drama.

The father keeps re-iterating to his son that he did not cheat during the course of his marriage, though she did. Not because he didn’t want to necessarily, but more because he knew he could use the not-cheating as ammunition for post-divorce proceedings. The son is written quite consciously as a chip off the father’s block. This is rare anymore in films as usually the script dictates how the son should act and doesn’t take into account how the father may have affected the son’s behavior. When the son is making out with his girlfriend he pauses, observes her face and says, “I wish you didn’t have so many freckles”. You can just picture the father saying that to a girl at his son’s age. The younger son has a very odd reaction to the divorce, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Although the simple fact that I’m still thinking about the movie a day later speaks of its quality.

The mother meanwhile takes up with the tennis pro (though he’s not on the level of McEnroe or Connors, remember) who coaches the youngest son. The tennis pro is an underwritten role, though William Baldwin gets a surprising amount of mileage out of a single line – “my brother”. Anna Paquin also turns up an underwritten role as a student of the father which allows her to reinforce the fact that perhaps no actress working today can flesh out an underwritten role better (see: “Finding Forrester”, “Almost Famous”, “Buffalo Soldiers”, etc).

The end scene is a callback to an earlier moment in which the oldest son visits a therapist. The “therapist sequence” is common to film but this is one of the “therapist sequences” I’ve seen. It starts with the son questioning the validity of his therapist (“so you don’t have a PHD?”), then turns to the son – who has been on his father’s side the whole time – realizing his father wasn’t really around that much when he was younger, and then to fondly remembering he and his mom going to the Natural History Museum to see the squid and the whale exhibit.

Can you guess where the movie ends? All I can say is I had a big smile on my face when I left the theater. This is one of the best films of the year.

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