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Blows No Good
on 29 July 2006
The Squid and the Whale is Noah Baumbach's autobiographical film about his parents' divorce. Beyond that I know nothing of the source material or of Baumbach's life - not even which of the two boys in the film represents him - but you don't need to, of course. And the truth of everything in the film beams through it so clearly that you would be in no doubt, anyway, that it came from real life.
Jeff Daniels gives a quietly barnstorming performance as Bernard (pronounced Ber-NARD) Berkman, a lazily bearded New York writer whose literary career is on the skids. His wife Joan (Laura Linney), meanwhile, has been published in the New Yorker and is about to get some good news about her first novel... Berkman is presented to us in toto in the opening scene, playing tennis with the family, the hilariously bitter competitive dad figure as he takes his son to one side and whispers "Try to get your mother's backhand. It's her weak point."
When the divorce is announced, along with joint custody ("Joint custody blows" - for some reason this has been changed on the UK DVD cover to 'joint custody sucks'), elder son Walt takes dad's side, accusing his mother of breaking up the family. He dates Sophie, a charming but unworldly girl who is taken in by his faux-intellectualism (another inheritance from his father), describing her favourite book as 'minor Fitzgerald,' bluffing a discussion and calling Metamorphosis 'Kafkaesque,' and faking authorship of Pink Floyd songs. Younger son Frank, aged - what? - ten or eleven, takes to masturbating and smearing his semen in public places, and to alcohol.
If all this makes it seem utterly grim, that could not be further from the truth. The film is not (or not only) uplifting in a Richard Yates way, for its honesty in portraying misery. It is bitterly brilliant, painfully funny, and with an almost non-stop series of great lines and scenes, mostly involving the self-involved Berkman Sr. One reviewer on imdb.com, who knew Jonathan Baumbach, the basis for Bernard Berkman, says that Daniels "amazingly, underplays the actual father."
Bernard: Joan, let me ask you something. All that work I did at the end of our marriage, making dinners, cleaning up, being more attentive. It never was going to make a difference, was it? You were leaving no matter what...
Joan: You never made a dinner.
Bernard: I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.
And the film is beautifully paced, too, with so many scenes cut short where other films would have played through until they became tiring or over-obvious. As a result, there is not a single boring moment in the entire film, which in fact comes in at well under 90 minutes.
It's quietly moving too, particularly in the central scene where son Walt explains to the psychotherapist that the only happy memory he can recall was when he was six years old, and doesn't involve his father. It also explains the title of the film, which comes back in the neat coda.
A vital film, and essential viewing.