the squid and the whale (2005)
After a somewhat exhausting stint of bio-pics, political allegories and giant monkeys, it was a breath of fresh air to sit down in The Little and take in a smaller film that deals with problems at a more personal level. Not that there's anything wrong with those films, but I give The Squid and the Whale extra points for being just plain different from everything else out right now. It's been awhile since I've seen a movie that was this disarming. It opens up to you. The Squid and the Whale is practically a therapy session with a group of people who are desperate to regain a lost feeling of comfort in their lives after being torn apart by divorce.
Sounds like it has all the makings of the year's best drama, right? Well, what I forgot to tell you was that this film was produced by none other than Wes Anderson, so that means it's also one of the year's best comedies. Oh, and it also stars Jeff Daniels. This film was written and directed by Nathan Baumbach, I'm told it was based primarily on his own childhood experiences. If this is true, I'm hoping he exaggerated quite a bit because some of the events in the film are pretty screwed up. Alright, so they're really screwed up. However, the good thing, and perhaps the film's most endearing quality, is the perspective from which the story is told. To be able to take past experiences and turn them into a film like this shows a genuine understanding of the pain that was felt during the events. However, the film's humor suggests a person slightly removed from the situation. I'm a firm believer that time heals all wounds; something that seemed horrible when it happened to you will seem very funny 5 or 10 years down the line, once you've had time to get over it. There is humor in every situation, it just takes time to fully bring it out. The narrative of the film combines the essence of someone in the situation and someone years removed from the situation, and that is what makes it such a wonderful film. It starts off as the Berkman family is playing a game of tennis together. Tennis becomes a big part of the film because it symbolizes what the family is going through; the bouncing back and forth of the children over the net that the parents have placed between eachother. The battle lines are drawn by this net in the opening scene as Frank chooses to play on his mother's side and Walt on his father's. It's obvious that the parents are having problems and soon their inevitable divorce occurs. They think they have it all figured out; they will split up the week and have joint custody of the children. It doesn't prove to be so easy. The film intelligently stays away from dividing itself into half of the film being a drama and half of it being a comedy as most films do. The drama and comedy are allowed to coexist in each scene in a way that the characters themselves could only dream to do. The split affects everyone differently but nothing seems to have a greater impact on the children than the knowledge that their mother, played wonderfully by Laura Linney, was having an affair while the two were still together. The youngest, Frank, takes it exceptionally hard. It causes him to attempt to rush into a state of maturity long before he is ready. His behaviors are the parts of the film that I hope are not true to life for Baumbach. The children, uncertain with what to do with themselves, turn even more toward their parents as role models; trying to emulate their every move and hanging on their every word. The trouble is, the parents are falling apart worse than the kids. The film does not condemn anyone for the choice to divorce, but rather simply remarks on the sadness involved in families that are far too distant from eachother, even without something as traumatic as a divorce. Families seem to be falling apart, but divorce rips them at the seams. When Walt tells a childhood story involving only his mother to the school psychologist, the psychologist asks if his father was absent alot during his childhood. In the film's most powerful moment, Walt, with tears in his eyes, tells the psychologist that his father was not absent, but he's not sure exactly where he was. He looks up and simply says "... he might have been right downstairs". It's a brilliant scene that illustrates the feeling of isolation in modern home life.
The film is absolutely wonderful. The script is fantastic with many moments of wonderful dialogue. Wes Anderson's influence is strongly felt in the way the humor is presented. Thank God the humor here leans more toward the kind found in The Royal Tenenbaums than the kind found in The Life Aquatic. The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite films of all time, but The Life Aquatic was terribly unfunny. Some of the film's most hilarious moments involve the younger child, Frank, and his newfound love for swearing. The direction is wonderful, I really really hope to see more from Baumbach in the near future, he's got alot of talent. He has a wonderful balance of the light and dark, the comedic and the serious. He knows when to let the scene play out in all of its seriousness and he concludes the film at just the right moment. The conclusion is perfect because it provides hope, but doesn't come right out and tell you that everything will be ok. It evokes the same feeling that Baumbach clearly has towards his own parents divorce; something big and scary in your childhood will turn out to not be so bad once you've grown up a bit and let time run its course. In way, its an extremely hopeful ending. The cinematography in the film is unique as it gives the feeling of almost a home movie; I'm assuming it was shot with digital hand-helds instead of film. It's a nice touch. One of the film's best aspects is its soundtrack, oddly enough. The film takes place in the 80's, giving the music a distinctly retro feel, and it's a welcome one. There is also a very well-used subplot involving the Pink Floyd song "Hey You". The acting is, of course, the real strong point in any character driven movie, or at least it should be. This film keeps the actors as the main, and proper, focus. Jeff Daniels wowed me, I'm serious when I say I was shocked. I never really pegged him for much of an actor, I really thought he didn't belong in Good Night and Good Luck, but after seeing his performance here I take it all back. He is fantastic with just the right nuance and the perfect comedic timing. The beard may help to disguise his face, because I never doubted his portrayal of the character for a second. All of the actors, including Billy Baldwin, do a first-rate job.
This is most definitely one of the best movies this year, and like Munich will undoubtedly appear on my top 10 for 2005. It's a tragic, moving, and humorous film about a family falling apart and the ways in which it changes each of their lives. It's practically flawless, I can't think of a thing wrong with it, however I'm not sure it deserves the ranking of a 10. This seems to be the case with many films this year, each well-made and extremely good in their own right, yet none but Good Night and Good Luck have been able to knock it out of the park and push the picture to that rare plateau. However, trying to push it too far might have ruined this unique and wonderful film. See it if you can get to it, it's a fantastic movie.