Divorce has shaped my generation. I am not sure I can count on one hand the number of my friends whose parents are still together, mine included. Growing up, divorce seemed so natural I often grew suspicious of homes not touched by it; surely these were the people who attended church on Sundays, smiled their way through school meetings, and invariably had giant stacks of skeletons in their closets. I still don?t carry a lot of faith in marriage as an institution. But for a lot of people, marriage represents the final frontier of adulthood, the place one is meant to land when she has found true love and wants to start a family. If that last sentence sounds like an attractive option to you, I encourage you to grab your ideals by the lapel and sprint down to your local movie theater to catch Noah Baumbach?s note-perfect ode to the terminus of a once happy marriage, The Squid and The Whale.
Set in 1980?s Park Slope, Brooklyn*, and loosely-based on Baumbach?s own childhood (although heaven knows how loosely), The Squid and The Whale is the story of the Berkmans; a family headed by Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Lauran Linney), two competitive, self-absorbed writers who have fallen out of love. She?s an emerging talent with a piece published in The New Yorker, he?s an established novelist enduring a commercial downturn and teaching creative writing to pay the bills. Their marriage has spawned two children, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), an intellectually dishonest teenager who sees the moral universe in black and white, and Frank (Owen Kline), a ?tweener? who is in the process of discovering that his own tastes and desires may not match his father?s ambitions. Like any family in crisis, the Berkman?s relationships with one another shift and shudder from moment to moment; Walt aligns himself with Bernard?s sense of injustice only to discover the essential selfishness that drove his mother into the arms of other men while Frank basks in the manly attention of his tennis instructor only to have the mother he loves hijack that relationship for herself. For better or for worse, parents hold a powerful sway over the worldview of their children, but no on-screen parents I have ever seen are as aware of their power and so ill equipped to wield it as Bernard and Joan Berkman. Walt?s deep admiration for his father?s intellectual work blinds him to the man?s shortcomings and sets him up for a great deal of disappointment, but this is nothing to be ashamed of and is actually marvelous to watch. Who among us doesn?t remember the moment we recognized our parents as flawed people with troubles of their own?
This, of course, is what makes The Squid and The Whale such a fresh take on the typically melodramatic divorce drama. Some of my friends have already started comparing the film to the generational touchstone Kramer vs. Kramer, but the differences are important; whereas that film outlined the struggles of a hurt, single father to come to terms with his sudden divorce, The Squid and The Whale is full of suffering characters who continue to hurt the ones they love. There is no single character here with which the audience is meant to identify; each is highly problematic, and therefore utterly human. We?ve all been hurt by our families before, had our pride wounded, and so it is sometimes difficult to watch the Berkman family go through the motions of trying to please each other while breaking one another?s hearts. But it is the honesty of the characters that brings The Squid and The Whale into the realm of the sublime; Laura Linney?s troubled Joan is the embodiment of the dissatisfied woman who feels that she deserves whatever (and whomever) she fancies and Jeff Daniels is perfect (and I mean perfect) as the vain, middle-aged Bernard, a man whose sense of entitlement easily outstrips his means to be a magnanimous father. This is a marriage I have personally seen dozens of times, and the recognition of the archetype in the context of a comedy is a winning formula. But there is a real feeling of sadness in watching everything fall to pieces, and the film gets the tone of loss just right; if these characters were more fragile, it might hurt too much. No one can pick their family, and as troubled as the Berkman family is, it seems no better or worse than most. In fact, the strengthened sense of individuality that can arise from dysfunction is its own strength, and despite the knowledge that things are coming to an end for this family, there is also a palpable sense of possibility. At the end of it all, we can only be ourselves.
*Full Disclosure: I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Just seeing the neighborhood so wholly represented on film, from the eternal struggle for parking to the Mexican blanket hanging in Santa Fe (a personal staple) was a treat. But continuity buffs beware; there are a LOT of cars lining the Slope?s streets that were made much later than the 1980?s. I assume that budget was an issue and that the streets could not be cleared during the driving scenes. Actually, while the realist in me struggled to suspend disbelief in the face of late model Minivans, the resident in me was happy that Baumbach and Co. didn?t make the parking situation worse than it already is by closing down blocks and blocks for the shoot.
Forty Love: Laura Linney, Owen Kline, Jeff Daniels and William Baldwin in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and The Whale