The governing philosophy of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s heartfelt, sharp-witted The Squid and the Whale is nicely summed up by the unsparing words of one of his central protagonists Barnard: “people can be very stupid.” A tender, exquisitely painful look at the aftermath of a messy divorce, The Squid and the Whale is also a portrait of the manifold ways people can be petty and foolish when heartbroken.
Barnard (Jeff Daniels) is perhaps the stupidest of all Baumbach’s characters. A once acclaimed novelist whose stardom has dimmed, Barnard is an insufferable bastard for most of the film. Haughtily pompous, he speaks with an obnoxious pretension, assuredly telling his teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) not to bother with A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “minor Dickens.” So self-important is he that at one point he calls Kafka “one of his predecessors.” When he’s not bragging about an alluring woman he could’ve slept with at a George Plimpton party, he’s subtly boasting that one of his scenes was a favorite of Norman Mailer’s. One gets the sense that Barnard drops the names of impressive people and touts sophisticated-sounding opinions to conceal a deep-seated insecurity: though he was once a novelist of some renown, now he can’t get an agent or a book published. Every time Barnard uttered yet another one of his overblown opinions or self-mythologizing stories, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Needless to say, my eyes were rarely straight ahead for the brief 80 minutes of the film…is it any wonder his wife Joan (Laura Linney) leaves him?
A literary talent on the rise, Joan is also a writer but-unlike her has-been husband- she actually writes. In a revealing scene, Barnard is setting up his bed on the coach, a tattered copy of Saul Bellow’s The Victim daring us to analyze its significance on the night stand, when he hears the clatter of typewriter keys in the kitchen. Curious, he follows the sound to find his wife visited by the muses who’ve so long forsaken him.
“What are you writing?” he asks obviously jealous, “Did you take my note about the ending?”
“Yeah, some of it….” she nods evasively, clearly not wanting to quarrel.
“Does he still die?” Barnard presses.
“Yes,” she finally admits like a child who’s forced to concede to a bully at school.
“Then you didn’t take my note.”
What follows is a sad scene all too familiar to those who grew up in a turbulent home. As Barnard and Joan holler and shriek, their two sons find their own ways to cope: 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) tries to ignore their fighting and hide under the covers; older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his room to check the commotion, looking painfully vulnerable as he sprawls out on the stairs in his underwear. Baumbach’s directorial touch here is beautifully subtle: though he never states it outright, it’s undeniable envy plays a central role in their breakup.
When Barnard and Joan finally break the news of their split, both are startlingly distant; rather than console their sons with loving assurances, all they discuss are the logistics of joint custody. Yes, after some time Joan hugs a tearful Frank but what should be a heartfelt exchange still seems oddly devoid of emotion.
Divorce is traumatic. We hear this over and over. But never before has a movie so faithfully limned the pain and grief that follows marital dissolution. After the disintegration of his 17-year marriage, Barnard becomes more angry and bitter, constantly bad-mouthing Joan to his sons, even tactlessly revealing to Walt that his mother had an affair. Little thought is given as to how such a divulgence will affect the teenager- all Barnard cares about is enlisting recruits on his side of the war.
Joan isn’t entirely innocent either: unhappy in her loveless marriage to a self-absorbed writer, she finds solace in passionate affairs with several men, including her youngest son’s tennis instructor. Rather than divorce Barnard, she remains unfaithful for many years. Much like her ex-husband, in the immediate aftermath of their divorce she behaves selfishly and insensitively, telling Frank when he shows up unexpectedly for a visit that she needs a “break” from him and his brother once in awhile.
While Joan is romping with a sexy tennis instructor and Barnard is lambasting Joan, their sons are finding their own ways of coping with the devastation of a broken home. A masterful storyteller (he was once a novelist, after all), Barnard fashions a narrative in which he’s the irreproachable victim. Walt, who idolizes his father, whole-heartedly believes his versions of events and channels his rage at Joan, at one point accusing her of “running a brothel.” Outraged by her infidelities, he blames his mother for the divorce and relentlessly defends Barnard. Yes, Joan was unfaithful but- as more impartial viewers witnessing these events-we possess the context to understand her affairs were most likely a symptom of an already strained marriage, not their cause.
The stupidest thing Walt does, I think, is side with Barnard. Not only does he unfairly hold his mother responsible for the divorce, he worships an uppity, self-satisfied snob. In the cult of novelist Barnard, Walt is his most devoted follower: he reveres his father’s judgement so much that he trusts his assessments of literature without question, often passing over books simply because his father dismisses them. So ardent is his adoration that he develops the off-putting habit of imitating his father’s elitist opinions, though he’s never actually read the books he so confidently critiques himself. In a hilarious scene, he tells his love interest that Metamorphosis is very “Kafkaesque,” a bookish adjective he’s undoubtedly heard his father spout around the house. “Uh, yeah,” Sophie (Halley Feiffer) replies, “it would have to be. It’s by Franz Kafka.”
In the wake of his parents’ acrimonious break up, the most despicable habit Walt adopts from his father is his misogyny. It is from Barnard that Walt learns women are but a prop for man’s colossal ego- nothing but pretty play things to be assessed by their exteriors alone. Throughout the film, Walt treats Sophie not as a first love to be courted and wooed but as a placeholder until he finds someone better. “What do you mean, better?” his mother asks in disbelief, knowing “better” is code for more attractive. Barnard encourages this detestable attitude toward women, at one point telling him to have sex with Sophie once to see if he “likes” it and on several occasions urging him to “play the field” and “not get tied down.” After Walt wins the school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own, Barnard is more adamant in his recommendation to sidestep commitment: “Things are going to change for you after tonight,” he assures him, hinting Walt will attract more tantalizing, desirable prospects after the evening’s show.
Despite their (many) failings, film critic Nick Schager has said, The Squid and the Whale “dares not harshly judge its all-too-human characters.” I would have to agree. Barnard, Walt, Joan: all are but frail, flawed people trying to navigate heartbreak on their own.