The Squid and the Whale centers around a father and a son (Jeff Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg), although a mother and a little brother (Laura Linney, Owen Kline) also figure prominently. Their story is based on the childhood of writer/director Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.
The film takes place in 1986, when father and mother separated, when the older brother was discovering girls, when the younger brother was discovering masturbation, and when mom was starting to enjoy more success than dad.
Anything You Can Do...
R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue, language
Dad is a writer. He’s proud of the fact that both he and his wife have PhDs in literature. He’s beyond proud; he’s arrogant, and it’s poisoning Walt’s (his oldest son) mind. (It’s not actually that simple, but that’s a fair assessment of their problems.) Consider the following.
The whole family plays tennis. They take lessons from Ivan, a tennis pro (William Baldwin), and when young Frank says he wants to be a tennis pro too, dad insists that he will not have such a low career. Out of earshot he calls Ivan a “philistine.” Frank asks what that means, and when dad says it’s someone who doesn’t read books or watch interesting films, then Frank says “I’m a philistine.”
But dad’s contempt doesn’t stop at those who don’t appreciate literature. He believes, contrary to the evidence, that he could beat Ivan at tennis, if only he had the time to practice, which in his tortured logic, is the same as actually beating him. Frank and his mother adopt the tennis pro, simply as a man who isn’t dad.
Logic of Ego
As insufferable as he is, Daniels’ character is fascinating. His abrasive personality is borne of insecurity and smugness. It’s the kind of role that could easily carry the movie. He’s not cruel, and not implausibly over-the-top, but he’s so frustrating that you can’t stop thinking about him.
And when we see some of his worse traits showing up in Walt, you wish that mom would put her foot down and intervene. Walt gets a girlfriend, but the first thing he does is start looking for someone “better.” He’s doesn’t think about how much he likes her; he thinks about whether she deserves him.
He claims that he wrote “Hey You” from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. In his living room, it’s a harmless boost of ego in front of his father’s eyes, but at a school talent show, it’s just plain plagiarism. When we finally hear his explanation, it’s priceless — a smug, naive gem adapted from his father’s own twisted egotistical logic that I won’t spoil by repeating here.
Add it Up
Add up all the characters and situations and you have a good movie held together in a complex web of unspoken connections and repulsions. It’s a great observation of human behavior.
It isn’t recommended more highly because it has some flaws. It fails to excite. The title is awkwardly taped on to the story as a metaphor for Walt’s fears. And anyone outside the family — particularly the tennis pro — suffers from a relatively two-dimensional character.
Still, The Squid and the Whale manages to be a memorable character study and an entertaining 80 minutes at the theater.