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For better or for worse, Noah Baumbach is responsible for a certain
class of cynical, hyper-literate film comedy that was briefly all the rage in the
nineties. Along with Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco), Baumbach mined his
post-collegiate ennui, best exemplified by Kicking and Screaming but also apparent in
1998s underrated Mr. Jealousy, for barbed laughs and emasculated
male pathos in a way that came to define the decade, or at least its independent film
movement. Never one to shy away from self-deprecation, his protags are witty and
brilliant, but often choked with neurosis and paranoia about their place in the world.
The Squid and the Whale, then, is his Portrait of the Artist as an even younger man. Set in the mid-1980s, Squid tracks the dissolution of the marriage of two
The tennis connection is just one of the many striking resemblances this bears to Wes Andersons The Royal Tenenbaums
Luckily, Baumbach lacks Wes Andersons suffocating whimsy, and this makes Squid edgier and more tightly drawn than Tenenbaums. Daniels is a smarter, if no less stubborn, Royal Tenenbaum; his college professor/writer-in-residence Bernard insults everyone in his path to prove his own worth, which even he sees as directly proportionate to his book sales. He moves into a dumpy apartment on the other side of
Baumbach hones in on the bizarre details of adolescent sexuality: Frank has recently discovered masturbation and bears its product like a mark of distinction. Perhaps because she seems too busy to notice his behavior, Frank chooses to side with his mother, whose meteoric writing career might well have put the final nail in her marriages coffin. Neither Linney nor Daniels play particularly redeeming roles, yet each infuses their character with a mossed-over decency that lies visible beneath their churlishness. Wickedly funny, theres still a recognizable warmth, a sense of familiarity, in Baumbachs writing. As is to be expected, the adults depths of immaturity trump their childrens. The film seems to say that the younger generation can be excused, since theyre just figuring things out as they go, but the adults ought to have learned by now. As for the director himself, he seems to have found an outlet.
- Jesse Paddock