Best of the Decade #9: The Squid and the Whale
I like the big budget blockbusters just as much as the next person, but anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for those little independent dramedies. I’m always amazed when I see a bare bones film that relies on nothing more than a strong screenplay, good actors that are perfectly cast, and classic camerawork. To me, this is film in its purest form. 2005’s The Squid and the Whale is a perfect example, landing it at #9 on my best of the decade list.
The Squid and the Whale was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, a frequent collaborator and protege of Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox). The story focuses on the divorce of two parents (Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels) and the effect it has on their kids. The kids are played by Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg. This film was really Eisenberg’s breakthrough, opening the door for his more recent performances in Adventureland and Zombieland. Maybe this movie should have been called Divorceland? The film is set in Brooklyn in the 1980’s, and is based on the childhood experiences of Baumbach.
The divorce results in split custody, and the kids are seemingly forced to take sides. The oldest (Eisenberg) blames the divorce on his cheating mother and sides with his father. Both of the parents are writers, and Eisenberg’s character likes to think he is as smart as his father. He lies about reading certain novels his dad tells him are good and has a “smarter than you” type of attitude. The younger kid starts drinking beer and sides with his mother, who begins dating the tennis instructor played by William Baldwin. It is one of the more fascinating portrayals of the effects of divorce ever captured on screen, and even treads some new territory that I haven’t really thought about before… what happens to the cat? Do the kids take it to the dad’s house on the weekend or does it stay with the mother all the time?
Linney has become a master at playing the slightly bitchy middle aged woman and Daniels is great in his role of the father who wants his son to be just like him. Eisenberg is the true revelation here, though. He often gets labeled as being a Michael Cera immitator, but I think he has much more depth as an actor. He shows a real vulnerability here, acting confused about how to establish himself as a person and how to impress girls. He might be better off trusting his own instincts, but he usually takes his dad’s advice on everything. The script is impressively written, perfectly mixing in comedy with all of the drama of the divorce and confusion of adolescence.
The Squid and the Whale is the perfect example of what really makes a great movie: good writing, directing and acting. After watching a movie like this, everything else just seems excessive.