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 1998’s 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 New York intellectuals (Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels) and the effects on their two adolescent sons. Not surprisingly, the story gushes from Baumbach’s own formative years: his father is novelist Jonathan Baumbach and his mother is former Village Voice critic Georgia Brown. Standing in for the director is Jesse Eisenberg (Roger Dodger), while the real-life son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, Owen, plays tennis-obsessed younger brother Frank.
The tennis connection is just one of the many striking resemblances this bears to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums—Anderson receives producer credit on Squid. Baumbach has admitted to being slightly taken aback when the two writers swapped scripts way back in 2000—at that point Linney was signed on but there was no financing, while Anderson was primed to start filming Tenenbaums. The two are close friends and co-wrote last year’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; when it comes to conjuring up details specific to those who grew up during the Reagan administration, they have no peers outside one another. (Nor do they in the realm of soundtrack appointment: The Squid and the Whale features memorable tracks by the likes of Pentangle and The Feelies.)
Luckily, Baumbach lacks Wes Anderson’s 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 Brooklyn, and his sexy young student (Anna Paquin) rents out a room on the second floor. (In this respect it resembles other horn-dog English teacher movies, like Wonder Boys and 25th Hour, in which Paquin also played a poetry-spouting nymphet.) Bernard’s brand of hot-air self-promotion is clearly rubbing off on Eisenberg’s Walt, who passes off a Pink Floyd song as his own in a talent show and describes Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as “Kafka-esque” in a pathetic attempt to get in his teen girlfriend’s pants.
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 marriage’s 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, there’s still a recognizable warmth, a sense of familiarity, in Baumbach’s writing. As is to be expected, the adults’ depths of immaturity trump their children’s. The film seems to say that the younger generation can be excused, since they’re 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