Noah Baumbach today may be hailed as an indie auteur but back before The Squid and the Whale came out, his career as a director was pretty much dead. His debut (and still best) film Kicking & Screaming was a critical hit, Baumbach was heralded as one of the “Ten New Faces of 1996” but it fell into obscurity after a disappointing theatrical run but has since gained a strong cult following to this day. He followed it up with Mr. Jealousy and Highball both even more spectacularly faded away and Baumbach took his name off Highball as the writer/director. He ended up co-writing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with Wes Anderson which although a flop gave him some attention.
The Squid and the Whale is a semi-autobiographical film which Baumbach had been working on since the ’90s which is inspired by his own upbringing in Brooklyn in the ’80s. The parents are based on his own parents the writers Jonathan Baumbach and Georgia Brown. His parents got divorced around the time the film is set in 1986 and the film is about a very similar but fictional family the Berkmans and how the divorce impacts the two sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). The parents are played by Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels who like Baumbach was also at a career crossroads and this role revitalised his career.
When I first saw the film back in probably 2006 maybe 2007 I didn’t care for it at all. I found the characters unsympathetic and to some extent they still are but now I see them ars the realistic and well-rounded characters they are. The most important factor in that initial assessment was the fact my own parents hadn’t divorced yet so I didn’t identify with the film at all. However now I can identify with the characters more and find them more sympathetic.
Baumbach throughout his films especially this one shows a real knack for writing liberal upper middle class New York intellectuals and that’s due to the simple fact he is one himself. Unlike Wes Anderson who is more interested in aesthetics and surrealism (which I prefer) Baumbach is more interested in his characters, relationships etc. This can get really tedious like in Frances Ha but in The Squid and the Whale (and a few others) it has an air of reality that most “dramedies” don’t and that’s probably down to the fact it’s based on his own experiences.
The script by Baumbach is also helped enormously by having a really great cast of actors. Jeff Daniels, who is one of the most underused actors, gives his best performance since Something Wild as Bernard. Even though Bill Murray was offered it and would have been great but it’s would’ve been too much of the Bill Murray show. Daniels was the right choice because he doesn’t have the “star quality” of Murray. He is able to enhanced the other actor’s performances. Laura Linney as Joan is great and she is one of the most consistently good actresses around.
Jesse Eisenberg always seems like a really smug asshole and it works wonders for the fucked up arrogant teenager he plays in the film. He pretends he wrote this Pink Floyd song, is dick to his girlfriend and claims to have read Kakfa and Fitzgerald when he hasn’t so he can have this projection of being this intellectual to everyone. This persona he protrudes also worked wonders for his performances in The Double and of course The Social Network.
Owen Kline is the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates and only got the role after Baumbach was talking to his parents and they suggested maybe he would be right. It’s a remarkable performance for such a young boy but he decided not to pursuit a career in acting but instead in filmmaking. The supporting performances by Anna Paquin as the student Bernard has an affair with and William Baldwin as the tennis teacher who has a thing with Joan are great too.
The Squid and the Whale remains one of the best dramedies to come out of the ’00s and a high-water mark in Baumbach’s at times frustrating career. He perfected it here with his cast, script and the cinematography by Wes Anderson’s DoP Robert Yeoman which is handheld but doesn’t have “that look”. It’s also a film which climaxes with Lou Reed’s Street Hassle on the soundtrack which is inspired choice.
Criterion released Kicking & Screaming on DVD (it still doesn’t have a UK release) and Frances Ha and The Life Aquatic on Blu-Ray in the States. Baumbach has also appeared on numerous Criterion discs over the years on other people’s films so they have a good relationship with him as they do with Wes Anderson. Naturally The Squid and the Whale was a contender for the series especially after a very shoddy Blu-Ray release in the States which didn’t have any of the special features from the dvd and was thrown on a disc with another catalogue title. That’s been rectified here and the in the US with this new Blu-Ray.
The features mostly include interviews with most of the key players. Baumbach is first up with an interview lasting 28 minutes and is a solid interview where he talks at great length about all areas of the film and it’s place in his career. Jeff Daniels’ interview in similar but much shorter at only 8 minutes. Linney, Eisenberg, Kline are cut together into a 20 minute piece which is them talking about their experiences making the film. Baumbach interviews the composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips about their score and how they helped shape the soundtrack with Baumbach, Wareham suggested Street Hassle. The package is rounded off with a short making of feature, the trailer, audition footage and a big booklet on the film with a new essay.