The Squid and the Whale
Noah Baumbach Opens Old Wounds
When moviegoers see “Producer Wes Anderson” roll in the opening credits of The Squid and the Whale, followed by a cut-away shot of a doubles-tennis scene where a shaggy Jeff Daniels wears retro McEnroe-style court garb, there are those who’ll assume writer/ director Noah Baumbach is tapping into the stylishly-out-of-style world perfected by Anderson; the corduroy-clad parallel universe that confuses generations with a mix of youthfulness and dusty grandeur. But this connection is only wardrobe-deep.
“With Squid,” Baumbach says, “it didn’t come from anything but myself.”
Achingly honest and autobiographical, Squid may be the definitive divorce film. It chronicles the split of two Brooklyn intellectuals in 1986 (thus The Royal Tenenbaums-ish wardrobe) and the effect it has on their two boys (the older representing our director). To describe the entire film, however, Baumbach refers back to the opening scene: Dad Bernard (Daniels), and older son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), are on one side of the net, while Mom Joan (Laura Linney), and younger son Frank (Owen Kline), are on the other. Bernard tells Walt to exploit his mother’s weak backhand. Walt does. Joan scolds. Bernard compliments him on a good shot. Frank looks puzzled. Bernard plays too rough. Joan calls the game and an argument ensues. Just like the rest of the film, the scene is deadpan hilarious yet touching, with a pang of sadness.
“Once I realized how the tennis scene played that opened the movie,” Baumbach says, “I cut the two following scenes when [the younger son] and the mother are talking and the subject of divorce comes up. The tennis said so much, I didn’t need those other scenes. Ultimately, I wanted the movie—in a general way—to feel like that tennis match.”
Before Baumbach was recognized as co-scripter of his friend/collaborator Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), he was considered by some critics to be the auteur of his generation. In response to his wry debut, Kicking and Screaming (1995), The Washington Post compared him to Orson Welles (who was the same age, 25, when he made Citizen Kane), as well as Jack Kerouac and Kurt Cobain. Although it hasn’t aged immaculately—or been mentioned in the same sentence as Citizen Kane since—the film was a moving portrait of post-college malaise. Baumbach’s next film, Mr. Jealousy (1997), focused on the dating woes of young adulthood. A clever, charming film, Jealousy is slightly more contrived than Kicking, thanks to the campy fun-with-plot device Baumbach employs: a character pretends to be his own best friend in group therapy in order to learn about his girlfriend’s ex, who’s a successful author.
In Squid, we witness the deep wounds of children who absorb the shock of their parent’s crumbling relationship. Walt plagiarizes Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” in front of the entire student body during a talent show (“I could’ve written it,” he argues to the school psychiatrist. “The fact that it was already written is just a technicality.”) As in the tennis match, Walt allies with his father, but to the point that he obsequiously regurgitates Bernard’s viewpoints on literature to girls. Frank not only fawns over his one-dimensional, “Philistine” tennis instructor (William Baldwin), who begins dating his mother, but also has a masturbation problem worsened by the fact that he deposits his semen in weird places around the school. Even further, he has a premature alcohol problem.
There are three glaring consistencies among Squid and Baumbach’s two previous films: the protagonists’ parents are in the process of splitting up or have already split (in Kicking, Elliott Gould offers a flickering glimpse of the New York Knicks-obsessed, sexually open, newly single father perfected by Jeff Daniels in Squid); the characters are bookishly smart yet their intellects seem to work against them; and there’s always a floating sense of fatalism—a moment when the protagonist is emotionally broken to the point he comes to grips with some sort of inevitability, whether it’s acknowledging his love for a woman, or realizing his parents are fallible.
Taking all this into account, it appears Baumbach has been grooming himself for this film since the earliest stages of his career, slowly moving closer to this tempestuous moment in his past. His parents’ faltering union isn’t just a detail used to add depth to a certain character. It’s the whole story—a gorgeous, candid portrait of the messy car crash of divorce, from all angles.
“It’s hard to even put myself in the mindset of those movies anymore,” he says. “With Squid, these are reinventions of people that are close to me, and this is the movie I identify with the most. It is a natural extension of what I have intended and what I feel. I trusted myself more on this one.”