Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Squid and the Whale

In 1996, I was a college senior in San Antonio, Texas, not exactly the independent-film capital of the world. Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming was one of the few smart movies that came to town that year (Twister and Independence Day were two of the dumb ones), and I loved it. Not only did it avoid the fashionable tropes of the time, like cattle being tossed skyward, but it managed to be genuinely funny while just about nailing the awkwardness of the immediate post-college years. The film’s tone is neatly summarized when Max, played by Chris Eigeman, says, “I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now.” The movie shows people experiencing this reminiscence problem while mostly avoiding sappiness, which seems a bit miraculous.

“What I used to be able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life,” Max also says, and did that concern ever ring true at the time.

So despite a follow-up, Mr. Jealousy, that I found disappointing, I was eager to see The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s latest. I knew going in that he had drawn on his own experience to tell the story of a divorcing couple in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and I suppose that being from a divorced family myself and currently living in Park Slope and admiring Baumbach’s previous ability to balance the humorous and poignant, I was hoping for some kind of revelatory insight. I admit that my expectations were probably too high, and I was entertained. I would recommend that you see it. But the movie, ultimately, is less about divorce per se than about monstrously self-absorbed parents. For the purposes of their effect on the kids, Bernard and Joan Berkman (played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, respectively) might as well still be together. They are when the movie starts, and the kids are already schematically aligned on either side of their fault line: Walt, the oldest child, is parroting his dad’s intellectual pronouncements to his schoolmates, while the younger, softer Frank is quick to defend his mother and others against his father’s defensive charges of philistinism.

Strangely –- or maybe not so strangely –- the movie seems to adopt its tone from the viewpoint of a confused child, but it doesn’t feel like an intentional choice. If I can put him on the couch for a moment, it feels more like Baumbach still hasn’t processed whatever happened to him in his youth. The parents are never given the opportunity by the script to exist simultaneously as looming caricatures to the kids and true, complex adults to the audience. I’m not saying that balance would be easy to pull off, but Joan and especially Bernard remain mostly caricatures throughout.

The primary reason for this might be attributed to the Wes Anderson Factor. A friend to this blog, Christian L., has already written a thought-provoking, extended take on the movie here. His review includes this observation:

It is hard, then, to ignore the presence in the opening titles of Wes Anderson, credited as a coproducer. Baumbach cowrote Anderson’s lackluster The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; there Anderson (and Baumbach) sailed into a stylistic Bermuda Triangle, allowing whimsy to overwhelm plot, character, even wit. From that angle, The Squid and the Whale plays like a correction. Indeed, our first glimpse of the Berkman family unraveling on a tennis court brings a gasp of recognition. The irony and the funny costumes have been stripped away. These are the real Tenenbaums.
That last line is a great one, and it’s partly true. The Berkmans are certainly more real than Anderson’s Tenenbaums, but the same might be said of the Flintstones. I didn’t sense that the irony and funny costumes had been stripped away, as Christian suggests, as much as they had been kept around, slightly minimized, and forced to dance, awkwardly, with Baumbach’s real-life experience. I haven’t found any of Anderson’s subsequent work quite as winning as his debut, Bottle Rocket, which evoked some real feeling alongside its costumes and capers, but that mixture is volatile, as Anderson’s follow-ups have shown. In any case, it’s not a style that easily lends itself to believable human drama, and Bottle Rocket’s Dignan is the last character Anderson created who you might imagine meeting on the street. (Of course, he created him along with Owen Wilson, and this Slate piece is awfully convincing about what I’ve long suspected, somewhat instinctively -– that Wilson was largely responsible for making Bottle Rocket and Rushmore as good as they are.)

In retrospect, even Bottle Rocket was fable-like, with all the early signs of the director's subsequent, more Rococo movies, and Baumbach apes a bit too much of the more recent Andersonian style. Minor characters in TS&TW, like Billy Baldwin’s tennis coach, who’s constantly wearing an athletic headband and ends every sentence to Frank with “my brother,” are two-dimensional. Even Walt’s pontification to classmates sends him veering dangerously close to the territory of Rushmore’s Max Fischer, an overblown portrait of ambitious precociousness rather than an actual kid –- fine for Rushmore’s purposes, but more damaging to the tone here. This is mostly because Bernard himself, who Walt imitates, is written as such an extreme of the untamable solipsistic writer. Maybe a second viewing would yield it, but I don’t remember a single moment when Bernard expressed anything but blatant self-regard, or oblivious disregard for others.

But Daniels is excellent with what he’s given, and it’s difficult to itemize my objections without feeling unfair, because I did laugh out loud many times and I thought the performances were uniformly solid. (I suspect I could watch Laura Linney plant trees for two hours and then recommend her for an Oscar, but that’s a different story. The only line of Christian’s that made me apoplectic was his calling Linney’s performance in You Can Count on Me “schmaltzy” – I feel like I can count that movie’s contemporary equals on one hand, maybe even a hand that’s been disfigured in a factory accident. Its attention to and respect for real people are what is lacking from TS&TW, not to mention nearly every other movie made in the last 20 years.)

TS&TW so strains to be about real people that the effort itself seems laudable, but just when something genuinely affecting felt within reach, the movie yanked it away. In a scene towards the end, Bernard is pleading with Joan to take him back, promising that he’ll cook again, implying he’s done it in the past. When Joan asks him to recount such efforts, he says, “I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.” That cracked me up, so it might be ungrateful to make the observation, but no one with even a trace of self-awareness -– even an irredeemable egotist like Bernard -– would say that in that situation. Only a clever screenwriter would call that line into being, never a real person in a real moment. Like many lines in the movie, it seems to call out for a beat to allow audience reaction, like the sharpest sitcom writing (and come to think of it, TS&TW also has a touch of Arrested Development’s vibe).

Cartoons are fine with me, and often preferable. There are any number of movies, like Rushmore or Raising Arizona or Harold & Maude, which are successful mostly because of their expert cartooning. So I don’t mean this to be a screed against the studied frivolity of Anderson, Baumbach, or anyone else. I saw The Royal Tenenbaums twice in the theater, after all (even if the second trip was mostly to hear Van Morrison sing "Everyone" over the closing credits again). It just seems to me –- and this may be too crotchety, even by my standards –- that fantasy and reality require considerably different methods of exposition. For all of their faults, maudlin fare like Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People seem to have more to say about family life than TS&TW, which succeeds on several levels, but never quite the human. This would be less frustrating if the movie didn’t seem contrived with such success in mind.



Blogger Dezmond said...

San Antonio now boasts three to four theaters that are either exclusively or partly dedicated to more independent or foreign film.

5:06 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

They were bound to catch up sometime. You know, it being 2005 and all...

5:26 PM  
Blogger Catsmeade said...

Dezmond, boasts?

4:39 PM  

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