Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale arrived with great fanfare when it was released in 2005. Critics hailed it. Audiences adored it. Well, those that saw it did. Baumbach was the toast of critic’s circles, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Golden Globes, and the film wound up on over 200 Top Ten Lists. Or so the DVD case claims. When I saw it way back when, I felt conflicted about it. There was something about it that was undeniably appealing, but it was also an undeniably flawed piece. When revisiting it this past week those flaws came bubbling to the surface.
In a breezy 81 minutes, Baumbach tells the story of a failed union and the realization of two children that their parents were not the titans they imagine them to be, but are instead two flawed individuals. The children (the elder played by Jesse Eisenberg, the younger wonderfully portrayed by Owen (son of Kevin) Kline) are the center of the film, which makes the story of the crumbling marriage also the story of two boys’ coming of age and the ways in which they deal with their parents’ inadequacies. Baumbach does a masterful job at handling both the adult and child side of this dysfunctional family tale. Neither parents’ (played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, both of whom turn in spellbinding performances) nor childrens’ emotional arcs are given short shrift.
The parents’ part of the story, in particular, is where Baumbach hits most often. His depiction of the jealousy, insecurity, infidelity, and inability to communicate that rot a marriage from the inside out are the heartbreaking work of a man who has seen this kind of deterioration first hand. Neither parent comes out looking good. Linney’s Joan seems faultless until the infidelities are revealed, whilst Daniels’ Bernard is a constantly condescending, selfish man-child whose insecurities are always more apparent to those around him (and the audience) than they are to the character. There is a great deal of honesty in the scenes between the two parents, both when they fight with one another (which they do frequently) and when they don’t. She takes lovers and he jealously tries to keep up. He uses the children against her, and she keeps all ten of her fingers in the dam to ensure all of her secrets don’t come spilling out. Neither party is completely innocent, but neither holds all the guilt, either.
Much more problematic is the treatment of the story of the two children. The younger, Frank, spins his parents’ divorce into a sexual uproar. The elder, Walt, sides with his father, and takes his word as gospel. Surprisingly, however, the scenes with the children come across as false. There is pain and there is confusion, but the characters are drawn shallowly. Walt, in particular, seems unable to reach his own conclusions about his parents’ divorce, which seems natural for children in broken homes, however it is here that we see the flaws of Baumbach’s writing, as Walt’s innocence in this area never fully melds with the character’s blindly self-assured facade. Sure, mindless confidence is itself a form of innocence, but Eisenberg is simply not a strong enough actor to convincingly portray any kind of inner turmoil to go with that front. He is a product of his father’s worst tendencies. As a result, we are forced to see him as an easily manipulated, irritating teenager, and our ability to care about him is rendered inert by the half hour mark. When he reaches his unremarkable epiphany at the end of the film all we can do is shrug. He might just go out there and think for himself, but who really cares?
Therein lies the film’s central problem, who cares about Walt? He is, ostensibly, the main character, but he is also the least compelling. Frank’s sexual awakening, Joan’s past indiscretions, and Bernard’s suppressed inadequacies as a writer and husband all make for more compelling stories than Walt’s teenage angst. It’s a false note in a film that rings incredibly true for most of its running time; from the handheld camera work to the performances by Daniels, Linney, and the revelation that is young Owen Kline, it almost adds up to a perfect and truthful portrait of failing marriages and youthful anxieties. But it is missing a compelling center, so as it stands we are left with a series of truths that collectively sound like fallacies.