The Squid and the Whale

This is a movie about the dissolution of an American family.

I saw it in the theater when it came out.  After it was over, I raced home and started writing a script about the dissolution of my own American family, which dissolved when I was roughly the same age as the older son in this movie.

Watched it again tonight.  Now I’m thinking, “Nope, I’m not going to finish that script.  Because I can’t write as well as this guy.”

This is simply one of the best written, best directed, best acted American films I think I’ve ever seen.  It could not be more straightforward, unfussy, unpretentious.  It could not be more naturalistic, better observed, unpredictable.

As a director, Noah Baumbach, like Ozu, has one shot.  With Ozu it’s the “camera sitting on the floor” shot, with Baumbach its the “handheld camera” shot.  A completely stock effect that you would have thought had run out of steam years ago, but it completely disappears here.  In Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, you’re constantly thinking “Aha, he’s using a jittery, handheld camera to good effect here,” in The Squid and the Whale you don’t even realize that it’s there.

Why don’t you realize it?  Probably because the script is so freaking good.  Just really extraordinary.  Tiny little scenes of completely normal human behavior, tiny little gestures saying volumes about the characters without ever saying “Hey, did you get what that scene was about?”  Beginning toward the end of the scene, so that we have to do a little catchup to figure out what’s going on, having the dialogue be things that people are not saying as well as things they are.

Or maybe it’s because the direction and editing are so good.  Unselfconscious jump-cuts remove anything that isn’t important, whip-pans look accidental but then turn out to have a narrative or thematic link to the next scene, the camera stays close to faces but never in a way that says “Hey, this is a movie about faces.”  Scenes that would have been milked for their “dramatic import” here are presented as they would have been in real life, meaning, one rarely understands when an “important moment” is happening in one’s life.  It happens, and many years later one realizes what the important, life-changing, crossroads moment was.  No, scene after scene goes by of crushing importance, but it’s all moving too fast and with too much fidelity to life for something as clumsy as “drama” to enter into the picture.  That is, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a scripted drama at all; it feels like a camera crew followed these four characters around for a few months, shot thousands of hours of film, and then edited it down to this.

Or maybe it’s the acting, which is simply some of the best I’ve ever seen.  I’ve always liked Jeff Daniels (who would dislike Jeff Daniels?) but his performance here as a faded, past-his-prime novelist and recently-divorced father is just one of the most astonishing I’ve ever seen.  And again, not calling attention to itself.  Incredibly detailed, thoughtful, lived-in.  I can’t remember a movie where I saw people thinking on screen so much.  Laura Linney, who’s always good, is equally mesmerizing as the mother.  And then there’s the two teenage boys, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, who give two of the most detailed adolescent performances I’ve ever seen.

For a movie with no “plot” per se, it crackles with intensity and flies by in a breathless (pun intended, you’ll see what I mean) 81 minutes.

This movie is a miracle.


19 Responses to “The Squid and the Whale”
  1. toliverchap says:

    I liked this film aswell. I know what you mean the whole thing had so much tension between the mother and father that it seemed longer than 81 minutes. I was left feeling like it still needed a few more bits to bring some kind of closure about the father’s health. For me the ending just seemed a little abrupt.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I’m definitely with you on this one. Squid was one of my absolute favorite films from last year, if not quite the favorite (that was probably A History of Violence).

    And Jeff Daniels is a national treasure. Even in a total crapfest like RV, he still somehow manages to exude an easygoing warm and charm that almost makes you want to like the film just because you like him in it.

  3. eronanke says:

    I wish I could agree with you-
    A friend took me to this movie and I just could not get around the fact that I had no sympathy for any of the characters. The same happened with “Digby goes Down”, but that movie had a lot more for me in that I felt less pity and more ire towards those characters. Linney and Daniels were good, but they were both so pathetic, I could not understand their motivation or their actions.
    (And the ejaculate-smearing? Is that a boy thing? I didn’t get *that* at all.)

    Well, what have you. I usually agree with you, so it’s not earth-shattering that we can differ on one or two movies. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Todd says:

      What can I say? I didn’t like Digby either, and I generally don’t care for Wes Anderson either. Whit Stillman’s first feature I liked quite a bit, but haven’t seen the others. But I still can’t quite get over the quality of Squid.

      • eronanke says:

        Do you think there might be an element of masculine bias in the narrative? In the protrayal of the family? Perhaps it was just that the male roles so outnumbered the female…
        Just a thought. The (male) friend I saw it with *loved* it, and I was left clueless.

        • Todd says:

          Do you think there might be an element of masculine bias in the narrative?

          If anything, I’d say the opposite. While no one is “to blame” for the dissolution of this family, the protagonist’s story is all about how he worships his father and hates his promiscuous mother, and gradually comes to realize that his father is a pretentious blowhard and his mother is a better person.

          • eronanke says:

            True, the character looses his mysogynism, but I meant more in the medium- the way the story is told, (pacing? framing of shots? I have no idea)- that was more slanted towards a male-perspective.

            I am, of course, assuming that a screenwriter/director has such a bag of tricks from which to pull such a bias… And it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong. ๐Ÿ™‚

            • Todd says:

              pacing? framing of shots?

              Well, she’s also completely outnumbered by the male characters. I think in general though, as in The Venture Bros., the females in Squid may be outnumbered but are vastly more sympathetic and humane than the males.

              I wonder if I’m the first person to ever compare those two projects.

  4. urbaniak says:

    I guess I should see that now that enough time has passed for me to forgive Noah Baumbach for not casting me in a small role.

  5. I liked this movie a lot, but had trouble loving it. I think because I had difficulty overcoming two obstacles in the plausibility department. I found Jeff Daniels’s character (though delightfully well-played) to have been written a little too overtly obnoxious. I could have used just a touch more gray area with him. And I could not believe for the life of me that, in a room full of students and teachers circa the early 80’s, nobody recognized “Hey, You.” That said, it more than paid off in other areas with its original yet honest depiction of divorced family dynamics and its perfect, quaint-yet-distant tone.

    Am mildly surprised you don’t like Wes Anderson. And, if you’re taking requests, I’d love to read your assessment of Magnolia.

    • Todd says:

      Well, let’s not confuse our Andersons here. Wes Anderson is the talented writer/director of well-written, imaginatively directed, clever films about precocious, quirky rich people, PT Anderson is the genius responsible for the all-time great humanist masterpieces Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love.

      Magnolia I thought was not as good as either of those two, but it is still so crammed full of wonderful ideas, great direction and acting that I still have to watch it every year or so.

      And then there’s Hard Eight, which is also wonderful, and my memory is not serving me well today, but the script had some kind of left turn in the third act that kept it out of the league of his other movies. Although I could say the same thing about Magnolia I suppose.

      I wonder if, in a slightly longer version of Squid, Jeff Daniels was a touch more sympathetic. Noah Baumbach’s father, the difficult writer Jonathan Baumbach, came to the set and, from accounts, was very proud to be having a movie made about him, but was similarly worried that he was being made to look like an idiot, and Noah assured him at the time that he was being portrayed sympathetically.

      But even Jeff Daniels, who spent three hours in conversation with Jonathan Baumbach, finally decided he couldn’t just do an impression of him because he, too wanted the character to be sympathetic. (Interview with Noah Baumbach here.

      • D’oh! Forgot, momentarily, that both filmmakers have the surname Anderson, but assure you I hadn’t confused their work. Wes Anderson and Magnolia actually have nothing to do with each other, except in my mind, where both seem to serve as a compelling yardstick by which to gauge a fellow film enthusiast’s moxy. I brought up the latter because people really seem split on that one and I was just curious where you stood as an analytical kind of screenwritery guy and all. I, too, am compelled to watch it annually, though I’m usually pretty spent afterward. A bit like a brutal accupressure massage–but I enjoy it more than Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love I think because it seems to fly in the face of so many screenwriting rules without blowing it. Anyone else would have thought “I should really combine my ailing patriarchs into one character” or “maybe I’m pushing it with the frogs and the singalong.” Maybe even “is the music a little big in the mix here?” It’s just such a bravura piece of filmmaking, and every actor in it brought their A+ game–even Cruise. And good god, doesn’t angelic Philip Seymour Hoffman just make you want to cry in that thing?

        I’ll see anything either Anderson makes.

        • Todd says:

          It’s just such a bravura piece of filmmaking

          1999 was a very good year for American film. Magnolia is a brilliant film and reminded me of years like 1974, where a “lesser” work like The Conversation might get lost in the shuffle and overshadowed by something like, oh, you know, The Godfather Part II. I wish that every American director was as creative as PT Anderson and had the backing of a studio like New Line.

          A few years ago I was up for the gig writing the script for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and I knew that the only way to do the book was to have a director on the level of, say, the Richard Lester of 1968, someone who could make a movie that always, always reminded you that you’re watching a movie but also manage to be, well, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

          When I heard that I had lost the gig to PT Anderson, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Whew,” I thought, “the right guy got the job.” I can assure you, that is not usually the feeling I get when I lose a gig.

          Of course, the movie hasn’t gotten made, but I’m sure that’s another story.

  6. tinyjoseph says:

    I rented the movie just because Jeff was in it and the movie takes place in my neighborhood. I couldn’t believe how accurately the film portrayed the people and borough. I grew up with those kinds of people and Daniels son in this movie was SPOT on. I’ve run into and known way too many similar people around here. It was actually quite funny to me, the selfishness of the characters and lack of perspective at times was refreshing. Jeff as always delivered and Jesse Eisenberg Iโ€™ve only seen in one prior movie: Roger Dodger, heโ€™s someone I hope to see much more of in the future. William Baldwin was surprisingly good in his role too, outside of Backdraft and Flatliners, this was probably his only good role.