VOD film review: The Squid and the Whale
James R | On 19, Dec 2015
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenburg
Watch The Squid and the Whale online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
As Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect – the opening of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Very strange, yet very matter-of-fact, or, as Walt (eldest of two sons whose parents are divorcing) puts it, “very Kafka-esque”. Sophie, his prospective girlfriend, laughs. “Because it’s written by Franz Kafka.”
Walt (Eisenburg) takes after his father, Bernard (Daniels), an arrogant intellectual, in reality an author who is not published anymore and therefore teaches English. His younger brother, Frank (Owen Kline), sides with their mother, Joan, who is starting to get published in The New Yorker. Frank looks at himself in the bathroom mirror, disappointed that he has his father’s bone structure while Walt regurgitates his father’s views on unknown films and books, using the most pretentious chat-up line possible: “Have you read Franz Kafka?”
The Squid and the Whale is a comedy run through with tragedy, a study of love impaled on the spike of misconception; Bernard thinks he was attentive to his wife. In reality, he made dinner. Once. When she had pneumonia. It’s no surprise, then, when he declares he will do everything possible to save their marriage, she laughs in his face.
And so we see the painful dividing of the family into two: books, children, other possessions split evenly. Only after they have ripped the family unit into pieces do they realise – who gets the cat?
You can recognise the tone from Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic, which director/writer Noah Baumbach co-wrote. The script is honest, from Bernard unsubtly labelling everyone else philistines to the children subtly echoing the adults’ phrases. “Don’t be difficult,” snaps Eisenberg at his girlfriend, while Frank calls people “my brother” with the relaxed manner of their mum’s new bloke. Noah’s tender directing matches that honesty, coaxing top-notch turns from the brilliant and believable ensemble, an impressive feat given a 23-day shoot and Daniels being a last-minute replacement for Bill Murray. The child acting, in particular, is exceptional.
As both parents find new partners – hello to Anna Paquin as a very young student – we are placed in the offspring’s position, unsure who to sympathise with out of the defunct couple. Made all too aware of their faults, hazy middle-ground is all that awaits and Baumbach nudges us around in the mist with masterful precision. With all the brutality of a clash between its titular animals, this 80-minute fight is cruel to watch, but brilliant to behold.
The Squid and the Whale is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.