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Monster Movie

June 8, 2006

There’s a scene about two-thirds of the way through Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale that sums up everything that’s wrong with the movie, and everything that’s wrong with the emerging genre it’s part of, which I’ll call the family horror film.

It’s 1986, and Bernard Berkman (Jeff Bridges), a professor of literature, is taking his son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his student/boarder/co-ed sex object Lili (Anna Paquin) on a weekend trip to a small town university where Bernard will publicly read from his obscure novel. Up until this point, all we’ve seen of Bernard is that he’s a pretentious snot who’s casually cruel to everyone in his life, including Walt, his estranged wife Joan (Laura Linney) and his chronically masturbating younger son Frank (Kevin Owen); all we’ve seen of Walt is that he’s an aspiring jerk who parrots everything his father says; and all we’ve seen of Lili is that she’s a shock-poetry-writing tart.

Fudgie-the-whale.jpg

Fudgie the Whale has nothing to do with this movie, but doesn’t he look yummy?

But on this roadtrip, Bernard, Walt and Lili are laughing and smiling, fiddling with the tapedeck, clearly having a good time together. There’s only one problem: we, as the audience, don’t know what they’re saying because it’s part of a montage set to twee falsetto rock (you know the kind I’m talking about; it’s all over Rushmore and it sounds like butterflies). It turns out it’s the one scene where these characters, where any characters, genuinely enjoy each other’s company in The Squid and the Whale, and Baumbach doesn’t show it to us. I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t want to, which is bad, or if he doesn’t know how to, which is worse.

Either way, the scene–or lack thereof–is powerful evidence that Baumbach is uninterested in man’s redeeming features and only interested in his damning ones: anger, misery, resentment, self-deception, dysfunction. It’s the kind of cynical focus that gives art a bad name. But it’s not his unique vision. The Squid and the Whale is only the latest in a line of similar films featuring family members doing awful things to each other. Other, uh, highlights of this new genre include Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors, Burr Steers’ Igby Goes Down, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and anything by Todd Solondz, who’s practically the patron saint of the new theater of cruelty.

Eleven years ago, Solondz’s first movie, Welcome to the Dollhouse, about a dorky suburban girl who’s neglected by her parents for her cuter younger sister, came out. At the time, a ruthless portrait of dysfunctional family life was unlike anything we’d seen before. By reproducing the most squirm-inducing moments from other teen dramas and scrubbing away any trace of sentimentality, Solondz reimagined adolescence as the stuff of nightmares. It worked because it played like satire. But with each succeeding film of suburban depravity, it became clear Solondz wasn’t exxagerating dysfunction for humor’s sake; he genuinely thinks the world is full of dads who jerk off to Tiger Beat and lonely fat men who call random women in the phonebook to tell them he can smell their pussies. Only three years later, when his movie Happiness was released, satire had degenerated into shock art. And unless you’re GG Allin, I hate shock art.

None of the family horror films that followed went to Solondz’s extremes but they all share a similar rigid unwillingness to portray joy. The Squid and the Whale is a proud successor, centering around the pretentious and cheap Bernard, his delusional loser of an older son (Walt), his alcoholic younger son Frank and his ex-wife Joan, who cheated on Bernard for several years before the separation, but is the only significant character in the movie who’s not royally fucked up. (Which means we cheer when she slaps Walt and laugh along with her when Bernard makes a pathetic attempt to get back together.)

As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of these kind of movies. But in the rare cases when they do succeed, their success is almost solely dependent on the powers of the actor playing the protagonist. If the actor can figure out a way to make his character’s corruption sympathetic, then we watch the movie as we would tragedy, learning about the faint pulse at the heart of an unredeemable asshole. But if, as in The Squid and the Whale, our only response to the lead loser (Walt, not Bernard) is an overwhelming desire to throw a brick at his head, then obviously the movie’s failed. (Unless, like Rushmore, the sole intent is to make us want to throw a brick at the protagonist’s head.) I should note, however, that Jeff Daniels makes an exquisite bastard; if the movie had centered more on him than Walt, I could imagine being moved by a single scene of vulnerability.

And I guess that Jesse Eisenberg’s unlikeable performance, more than anything else, is the reason that The Squid and the Whale fails. By the time Walt returns to the Museum of Natural History for the first time since he was a child, and looks at the awesome and horrible model of a giant squid and a whale locked in underwater combat, we’re supposed to share Walt’s heartbreak over the realization that his hero, Bernard, is actually a loser. But all I could think was, “I wish I had a brick right now.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2006 1:30 pm

    I found the film greatly lacking in the usual dietary character fiber. It left me feeling bla. I actually get more out of vomiting, where there’s at least some release in the end, but this film just dragged on and on, more like dry-heaving. And the fact that I’m comparing the film with gagging and puke says it all. I agree, a brick would have been helpful.

    Yeah, Squid just doesn’t compare with The Royal Tenenbaums.

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