In Noah Baumbach's bruising autobiographical divorce drama, The Squid and the Whale, one of the year's best pictures (if not the best, case closed), Jeff Daniels plays the squid, and Laura Linney, as his wife, plays the whale.
No, hold on. Strike that.
Touchy, able to attach herself to her confused children, head out in search of calmer shores, then detach herself just as freely (though always leaving marks): Yes, Laura, as Joan, a journalist and wife, is the squid, and Jeff, large and overbearing and slow, plays the leviathan.
Wait, maybe he's the squid.
As the teenage protagonist's novelist father, Bernard Berkman, Daniels plays a pompous name-dropper whose insecurities, battered vanity, and self-absorption surround his children like tentacles. A onetime literary talk of the town, he's now a deposed patriarch whose failure in his career has led to a failure in family, whose inability to level with himself throws up a towering false front - and who woke one day to find an audience of one, his son.
The film, told primarily from this son's point of view, traces his deteriorating opinion of his father - from pedestal-placing to a rousing defense of the guy to inevitable disillusionment. Yet Baumbach, who is keenly attuned to Bernard's pain, is both sympathetic and piercingly honest with everyone.
And as with many films that cut close to the truth, the more incisive it gets, the funnier the truth. And Squid is darkly funny, while somehow deeply sad, too.
There are a lot of good reasons to see Baumbach's movie (which just topped the Independent Spirit Awards with six nominations), but the best is Daniels, whose Bernard stands as a rich example of how an actor doesn't have to play likable, or strive for redemption, to win our pathos. Hidden behind a salt-and-pepper beard, with eyes registering every affront to his ego, Daniels conveys just how tiny this towering figure has actually become.
His Bernard is a fountain of self-congratulation and hypercritical declarations. For instance, Tale of Two Cities is "lesser Dickens" and a certain block of their Park Slope, Brooklyn, neighborhood is ruled by Philistines, while another is "elegant" - his building, in particular, is "the filet of the neighborhood." We're talking the kind of guy who refers to famous authors as "my predecessors." He is the squid - on the other hand, whales do blow hard and loud and knock aside all kinds of fauna without realizing the damage left in their wake. No, Daniels has got to be the whale.
OK, fine. I have no idea.
I was about to write that, after all, this isn't March of the Penguins or Grizzly Man - this isn't some nature picture where feral creatures act entirely out of self-preservation and parental instincts. The thing is, The Squid and the Whale is a nature film of sorts. The setting is the wilds of intellectual Brooklyn, now pricey but still relatively undeclared country back in 1986, which the film remembers clearly but without fuss. As for the title, it comes from the diorama of a squid and whale at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, mortal enemies locked in eternal combat, choking each other to death, pulling each other into the deep.
But if that metaphor for marital strife isn't obvious enough, here's another: The first scene is set on a tennis court, and the first line of dialogue is "Mom and me versus dad and you." That says it all. When we meet Bernard and Joan, it's clearly all over but the shouting - and details of the joint custody agreement. As kids will do, sides are chosen: The older son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), is earnest and anxious to be taken seriously. Naturally, he sides with his father, even echoing his dad's contemptuous pronouncements, but hurting only himself as he reaches beyond his grasp: Walt tells his new girlfriend that a certain novel is very Kafkaesque, and she replies that "Kafka wrote it, so it would be."
Bernard and Joan's 12-year-old, Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), is a genuine mama's boy - in a protective sense. The divorce was hastened by her infidelities and his obnoxiousness, but deep down, it's because he's on the decline and her career as novelist shows no sign of peaking. Walt hates her for topping his father; there's one writer in this family, he whines. And Frank says, well, she is a better writer than he is.
Things are said here, and manipulations pulled, that are textbook examples of how divorcing parents should not handle kids. But the observations ring so uncomfortably true, it comes as no surprise Baumbach based a great deal on the real divorce of his parents, the novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. At one screening I attended, audience members gasped at the callowness of the characters played by Daniels and Linney. But what saves this from being a tirade about one's parents is how Baumbach, if you believe Walt is his alter ego, directs the harshest lessons on himself: Until he learns to develop his own ideas, he will never develop his voice.
Sounds like an Academy Award contender, right? Well, the film is too small - or so goes the conventional wisdom. Which is not wrong, just depressing: At a swift 80 minutes, The Squid and the Whale would require at least twice its length, three times its pretense, and a tidy resolution before it would be taken seriously at Oscar time. It has the precision of a short story, rather than the sprawl of a novel. That, and the final scene leaves us on an ambiguous (but somewhat optimistic) note. Walt will emerge from this with a better picture of who his father is. Not a literary god. Not a monster. Just a guy, not above seeking pity when the reserves of respect have run dry.
I've seen Baumbach's film twice, a year apart, and both times the image I can't shake is the only one in the film of a squid and whale. It makes for a visually gorgeous climax: Walt stands before the diorama, exhausted from the drama, but standing. Lacerated, poisoned, messed-up, but standing. More certain who his parents are, more certain of who he stands to become. There's a lesson in that: Yeah, some awards aside, here is a great, small picture that will be left behind this winter by larger, more obvious winners. The nice thing, though, is that the chance you'll forget it at Oscar time or years from now, are far smaller.
It's the filet of the multiplex.