The Squid and the Whale (15)

Jan 16, 2008
Cranbrook Film Society

As an insightful critic put it, this film is a tragedy, remembered as comedy. Indeed though the film will make you wince with discomfort in more or less every scene, Jeff Daniels sealed his part as Bernard, the father of the collapsing family unit that the film focuses on, when he told the director/screenwriter Noah Baumbach over a three hour lunch in New York that “this is a very funny movie “. Noah replied he was the first actor who had told him that even though he believed, with the callousness that only children can oedipally visit on their parents, that he had written a comedy. Noah based the story and characters on his own family and it’s very much an East coast, New York movie, with self consciously literary, arty people. The kind of people whose devotion to their Art is only a hair’s breadth from devotion to themselves.

The title of the film comes from the squid and whale diorama found at the American Museum of Natural History. The film was shot on 16mm mostly using a hand held camera, and the film was a great success with critics. At the Sundance Festival in 2005 the film won awards for best dramatic direction and screenwriting, and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Baumbach later received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay. And it was voted best screenplay by critics in New York and Los Angeles. The son of author Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown, Noah Baumbach is married to Jennifer Jason Leigh and counts among his friends long-time husband and wife Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates whose son, Owen, plays. Baumbach also co-wrote, with Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and it was Anderson who produced this film.

For me, Bernard is the star of this movie. The last thing Bernard wants is to be alone because then he would have to be honest with himself. It’s a great performance from Jeff Daniels who admitted in interviews that he drew on his own sense of frustration in being neglected by Hollywood when he moved to the mid-West for the sake of his family.

In the end, though, it’s Baumbach’s film.

“You watch the film and hopefully you have a raw reaction to it and then you might come to me later like so many have done and say, “God, how could you expose yourself like that?” or “Was it painful to make it?” And I say that I’m not exposing myself, this is an invention in every way. It’s a film, it’s been recreated in every way and, no, it wasn’t painful to make it. I had to go through a lot of this stuff in order to make it, but the making itself was not cathartic or therapeutic.” – Film Freak Central Interview

Noah Baumbach | USA | 2005 | 81 minutes | 15