Bright Lights Film Journal

Tentacles No Knives Can Cut: Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale

All in the family, unfortunately

Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in.”

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with all the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Noah Baumbach, writer/director of The Squid and the Whale, gets in line behind Philip Larkin, Robert Frost, and a thousand other ungrateful wretches who don’t appreciate all that their parents have done for them. Baumbach’s film visits that special circle of Hell reserved for children of literary parents growing up in Brooklyn in the eighties, the faux Upper West Side for couples who couldn’t get their joint income north of $300K. Mom (Laura Linney) and Dad (Jeff Daniels) are both Ph.D./novelists, but they’ve got that A Star Is Born thing going. Mom is ascending and Dad is descending, and their marriage just can’t take the shear factor any more. Caught in the middle are sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), age 17 (more or less), and Frank (Owen Kline), age 12 (likewise), who wish that Mom and Dad could just shut up and suffer and drive them to soccer games and tennis practice.

The film, shot in 23 days,1 proceeds in the form of a series of brief, undramatic scenes. We gradually realize that Dad, trying to look and act like a young Hemingway, is in a serious downward spiral that looks to be terminal. The “elegant” house he’s moving into is an unfurnished wreck. He’s in a constant state of rage at the fucking assholes who take his fucking parking place. When he tries to show off his racquet skills with Ivan, the kids’ tennis instructor (William Baldwin), he gets his ass kicked. When he plays table tennis with Frank, he gets his ass kicked again, leading to a pathetically uncontrolled explosion of obscenities. Just to put the cherry on his sundae, his agent has dropped him.

Poor Dad! Ever since the age of fifteen, he’s been worshipping at the shrine of his own genius, and now he can’t afford to notice that he’s the only one in the crowd.2 As a young stud, he could wow the girls with his dirty talk and contempt for bourgeois niceties, but now that he’s pushing forty, he needs some fame, and some cash, to sell himself, and he hasn’t got it. He’s only got one act, and it isn’t working, and he doesn’t know how to change.

For Mom, on the other hand, it’s getting better all the time. She’s got the house, which the boys persist in thinking of as “home,” to Dad’s irritation. Her new novel is being excerpted in the New Yorker. In contrast to Dad, who seems to be all show and no go when it comes to matters below the equator, Mom never lacks for companionship. You ride one horse as far as he can go, and when he gives out you find another. You always give good value, you’re always good company, and you never take more than you give.3

Mom has the house, she has success, she has Frank, she even has Ivan. She has everything except Walt, who seems determined to fuck himself up as badly as his father has done. If he’s happy, after all, Mom wins, and you don’t want that. And so we see Walt telling Sophie (Halley Feiffer), his sweet, sometime girlfriend, that she has too many freckles, and that he really doesn’t care about her that much anyway. He makes a play for Dad’s favorite graduate student4 and naturally gets blown out of the water. Baumbach is so hard on Walt, who is, of course, his stand-in, that he gives the poor kid both a limp handshake and a limp dick. Enough already!

Baumbach has caught a fair amount of shit from critics for basically unloading his baggage on us and calling it a movie. There’s a lot of anger directed at Mom and Dad for being imperfect, but that’s a fairly common human failing. Poor Dad is a pitiable wreck rather than a monster, and Mom is unsentimental at worst. As for Walt/Noah, how sorry are we supposed to feel for an upper-middle-class brat who makes his first film when he’s 26?5 He’s not exactly starving, is he? Concluding Trés Scientific Postscript on Squids and Whales

If I were Noah Baumbach, well, I’d be getting a lot more tail than I am, but also I would have named the movie The Giant Squid and the Sperm Whale, because when I was a kid these were my two favorite animals, even ahead of the Brontosaurus6 and the Baluchitherium.7 At the end of the film, Walt visits the American Museum of Natural History to view a diorama of these two creatures, locked in deadly embrace. When I saw this diorama, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a bit of a sell. In the first place, you can’t see the entire whale, only its head, which looks like it was carved out of wood. Secondly, the whole thing is seriously anthropomorphized, as though the squid were raping the whale. In fact, it’s the whale who’s the aggressor, and it isn’t much of a fight. A big giant squid weighs about 500 pounds,8 while a small sperm whale weighs about thirteen tons. A good-sized sperm whale (30–40 tons) goes through about a ton of squid a day.

There are a number of terrific squid sites, with great shots of their maleficent suckers. Try here. The Deep Sea News keeps you up to date on all things abyssal, including the fascinating story “Giant Squids Have Sex and Then Attack Canadians” (Sept. 26, 2005). For sperm whales, read Moby Dick.

  1. The tight shooting schedule and budget led to numerous anachronisms. Perhaps the most grievous occurs at the end of the film, when Dad is in the hospital. As Walt is talking to him, we catch sight of a Purell Anti-Bacterial Hand Dispenser on the wall. A Purell Anti-Bacterial Hand Dispenser in 1986? I don’t fucking think so! []
  2. Over and over again, Dad insists that nothing less than perfection is acceptable. Borg and McInroe were “artists,” but Ivan is a Philistine, a loafer, afraid to soar. []
  3. So why didn’t things work out with Dad? Well, you never let your lovers get in the way of your career. []
  4. Dad’s impressed because she writes so honestly about her vagina. []
  5. Burr Steers’s Igby Goes Down (2002) showed similar preppy angst. []
  6. Now the Apatosaurus. []
  7. Literally, the “beast of Baluchistan,” now part of Pakistan. The Baluchitherium, an extinct giant hornless rhinoceros, now known as the Indricotherium or the Paraceratherium, was the largest land mammal ever! Twenty tons! Immortalized, kinda, by Van Halen on the Balance album. []
  8. Of course, weighing a squid is a bit problematic, rather like weighing an oyster. Does the liquor count? []