With excruciating honesty, The Squid and the Whale chronicles the experiences of two young brothers growing up in 1980s Park Slope, Brooklyn, as they navigate the jagged contours of the divorce of their parents, both writers. The acclaimed third feature by Noah Baumbach marked a critical development for the filmmaker as he turned toward an increasingly personal style—a move that garnered him an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay. Shot in Super 16 mm and featuring a quartet of nuanced, understated performances from Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline, this comic and poignant drama, peppered with autobiographical elements, deftly captures the heartache and confusion of a fracturing family.
How much of us goes into our children? We all want to believe we make our own decisions, and refuse to believe the sins of our parents determine the lives we lead. And yet, you can't argue the importance of a solid foundation and upbringing. Many films have tackled this complex subject, but only a handful have reached the heights of the modest but impactful “The Squid and The Whale.”
Director Noah Baumbach has always been compared to his friend, the much more successful Wes Anderson. After all, Baumbach used to write for Anderson. They both make movies that feature endlessly quirky “hipster” characters that have dry plucky humor and wit. But I feel Baumbach separates himself by his dry humor, which acts as a way for us to get to know these characters. From the beginning, we know instantly the kind of person, father, and husband Bernard Bergman (Jeff Daniels) is from his snarky demeanor. Bernard is absolutely delusional about almost every aspect of his life. How he is a “writer” who has never had a chance to reach his full potential. How full of wisdom he is. And most importantly, his place in his marriage at this particular point in time. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) is actually the breadwinner of the household because she also is a writer. Her star is on the rise while Bernard only teaches literature at a local school, and he can't handle it. All of this is conveyed in an incredibly short amount of time through the plucky dialogue between Daniels and Linney, and they are both at the top of their game. Joan is more down to earth, the lesser of the two evils, but she still has her problems. There is no way to get around it: these two are very flawed characters, and because of this, they are going through an ugly divorce. Joan will get the house, and Bernard will be moving into a seedier part of Manhattan, that he so eloquently describes as “the fillet of the neighborhood.”
Bernard and Joan have two children, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), and Frank (Owen Kline), who have already taken sides in their parents’ antagonistic relationship. Walt clearly looks up to his father and is on his way to being just as delusional as him. He has enrolled in a talent competition, claiming that he wrote “Hey You,” which we all know was written by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd. But this is ok to Walt because his father dotes on him to such a degree that he thinks he can do no wrong. It especially becomes concerning when Walt has genuine insecurities about his relationship with his girlfriend Sophie (Halley Feiffer). The way Walt deals with his insecurities is to lie and project a false image of himself that absolutely mirrors Bernard's false projections of himself. Frank takes his mother’s side, and as a result, is dealing with the divorce in his own ways. He is in his early teens, and experimenting in weird ways that are directly tied to his parents’ divorce. Both of these teenage children are severely affected by their parents’ disagreements, and if they continue on the path that they are on, they are bound for a similar life as their parents themselves.
All of these depressing themes don't necessarily lead to a depressing movie. As I stated above, there is quite a bit of dry humor that acts as levity to lighten the subject matter. Bernard has been putting on his act for so long, he truly believes his own lies, and it is hilarious to see how he justifies himself through the movie. The movie also finds humor in how Walt and Frank take after their parents in peculiar ways. Walt actually thinks that even though he didn't write “Hey You,” he believes he could have if Roger Waters didn't. Since Bernard wants to live vicariously through his son in the worst way, he feels inclined to agree with him. All of this adds up to a thought provoking portrait of a broken home featuring just enough levity to lighten the mood, to make a seemingly perfect blend of drama and dark comedy.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Status
Criterion brings ‘The Squid and The Whale’ to Blu-ray with its usual white hardcover case that always feels just a bit more weighty and substantial. Inside is a single layer BD-50 Blu-ray on the right with a picture of Eisenberg performing “Hey You” at the talent show on it. To the left is a very interesting booklet with a short story about the film, written by Kent Jones. Jones then goes on to do a written interview Baumbach, which is included as well. There are no trailers on any Criterion release that I have seen and there aren't any here. Just a still frame main menu that lets you navigate from there.
‘The Squid and The Whale’ brings us back to my favorite decade with this 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode that is all about setting a mood and a sense of time. Yes people, we are brought back to the early 80s here, and that is this transfer’s biggest asset. Framed at its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and shot in 16mm, we really get the sense that this movie could have been filmed in the late 70s early 80s with all the grime, grit, and brownish orange tinge. Which is a compliment because this movie was actually released in 2005. It is hard to recreate a time that has long since passed like this, but cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman has done an outstanding job at recreating a Brooklyn, NY that feels authentic and lived in.
This movie wouldn't be my first choice for a 4K master, but that is the new “it” thing to do, and Criterion likes to do this at least once a month. Now, that doesn't mean you should be setting your expectations too high, however there is a significant bump up in clarity and grain levels from any other version you can pick up for this movie. We don't get unbelievable clarity and detail here, but certain scenes do have good detail, especially with Daniel's beard which makes him look like a member of The Bee Gee’s. A certain amount of grain comes with the territory in order to make this film feel authentic, but it is actually nicely done here, with just the right level between amateurish and authentic. All in all, this is a subtle but effective transfer that didn’t blow me away (not every transfer needs to), while setting a mood that the rest of the movie has heavily relied on.
Criterion advertises its DTS-HD MA 5.1 track as being supervised by its composer Dean Wareham, and that shows where their focus was when mixing this track more than you might guess from first impressions. Everything special about this mix is its soundtrack, and the rest is a subtle affair. You hear a small amount of the Brooklyn street noise in your surrounds during exterior scenes, but that is all too far and few between. The majority of the movie is very somber and front heavy. There is nothing wrong with that in this case. Not every surround track needs to smack us in the face with how bombastic it is.
When the “hipster-esq” score comes into play, something different happens. Your whole field of sound comes to life! The LED light on my subwoofer turns from red to blue and it brings that warm feeling to my heart. From ‘The Swimming Song’ by Loudon Wainwright III, to ‘Street Hassle’ by Lou Reed, all the way to ‘Courting Blues’ by Bert Jansch, all of these songs are recreated expertly in 5.1 surround. This track adds a sense of place and time with its wonderfully eccentric soundtrack, proving you can be minimalist and still be effective.
Noah Baumbach (27:40 HD) – ‘The Squid and The Whale’ is obviously a very personal story for Baumbach, and this feature is all about the journey of making the movie, and what it means to him. At one point, he proves how long it took until this film came to fruition: Baumbach finished his script wile Anderson was finishing the script for the ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ (2001) and the movie didn't get greenlit until after he helped Anderson write ‘Life Aquatic’ (2004).
Revisiting The Squid and The Whale (20:14 HD) – A collection of interviews with Linney, Eisenberg, and Kline reflecting on their experience that is really interesting. You definitely see it in the film, but it is interesting how Eisenberg picked up on Daniels’ character to reflect how much the two characters were alike.
Jeff Daniels (7:57 HD) – A solo interview with Daniels where he talks about how he fought to steal the role from an “A list” actor. The reason he was chosen was because he was the only one to get that beyond the subject matter; it was actually funny.
Auditions: Walt and Frank (3:10 SD) – Auditions for the two actors rehearsing the scene where they talk about the books in Bernard's new house.
“Do You Like Frank Kafka?” (3:17 SD) Eisenberg and Feiffer rehearse the scene where they talk about Kafka.
“Not an Intellectual” (3:59 SD) – Eisenberg and Feiffer rehearse the scene where Walt asks Sophie about her previous relationships.
“Don't Be Difficult” (2:42 SD) – Another audition between Eisenberg and Feiffer where they rehearse their fight on the street.
“I Know It’s Over” (7:31 SD) – The last audition between Eisenberg and Feiffer where they run through their breakup scene.
Dean Wareham And Britta Phillips (13:49 HD) A look back at the professional relationship between Baumbach and the two composers, reminiscing about previous films together and the choices on the soundtrack for ‘The Squid and The Whale’.
Behind ‘The Squid and The Whale’ (9:57 SD) – The actors talk about their roles and where they drew their characters from.
Trailers (4:07 HD)
In the Special Features, Baumbach talks about how hard it was to grow up with artistic parents who were very concerned with themselves and their careers. I see that this movie was an immensely personal story for Baumbach (he is Walt in the movie), and that is always a great recipe for a good movie. The way that Daniels finds the humor behind the heavy material makes him a stand out, and a this becomes a career changing role for him along with every actor in the movie. This movie would be a joyless affair without actors who understand its dry ironic humor. When I was in college, I had an apartment down the street from a small independent movie theater that I have fond memories of. ‘The Squid and The Whale’ was the absolute first film I saw at that theater and an experience I cherish the most. Right after seeing the movie, I remember jumping in my car to go to my local music store and buying the soundtrack. Now, even though my taste in movies and music has changed, my love for this movie and its soundtrack has not, and this Criterion release recreates that theatrical experience with great skill and craft. Highly recommended.