The Squid and the Whale review by Mike Long

We all know that you can't judge a book by its cover. In a similar vein, you can't judge a movie by its title. However, there are people who do this everyday. I'm not sure if Hollywood and/or filmmakers in general are aware of this, but there are still people who do no research on what's playing at the local multiplex and simply arrive hoping to discern the quality of each film from the titles. I'm sure that many of these folks avoided The Squid and the Whale thinking that it was possibly a documentary in the vein of the popular The March of the Penguins.

The Squid and the Whale opens with a rather simple premise. Couple Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) are having trouble in their marriage. The tension has been growing between the two, both of whom are writers. Bernard had novels published in the past, but has written much recently, whereas Joan is about to have a story published. This reaches a point where they decide to separate. This is very upsetting for their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). From this point, the movie grows movie complex, as we witness how this break up effects all four members of the family. Bernard moves into run-down house and attempts to create a new life for himself. Joan embarks on her writing career, as well as new dating career. The two boys attempt to deal with being shuttled back and forth between the two parents. Walt becomes very interested in girls, dating a girl named Sophie (Halley Feiffer), but overanalyzes his relationships. Frank's behavior takes a downturn and he begins to exhibit some very bizarre mannerisms. As the film progresses, we learn how each of the Berkman's copes with the changes.

One doesn't have to read the DVD box or view any of the special features to grasp the fact that The Squid and the Whale is autobiographical. Writer/director Noah Baumbach paints a very vivid picture of how one decision -- the decision to dissolve a marriage -- can destroy everyone involved. In an interesting twist, Baumbach chooses to not focus primarily on just one of the characters and attempts to show how the divorce effects all four family members. (Although, to be fair, the story does put more emphasis on Bernard and Walt.) The story takes on a very realistic note with the way in which Walt sides with Bernard and Frank clings more to Joan. Walt clearly idolizes his Dad and mimics many of the man's mannerisms and spouts opinions in the same way that Bernard does. The story also doesn't pull any punches and clearly displays the faults of every character. The Squid and the Whale is moving at times and the pain of each character is palpable.

The Squid and the Whale is the latest recipient of the "Oohhhh..." movie prize, for as the credits rolled and I saw Wes Anderson listed as producer, I said, "Oohhhh...". That occurred because I could clearly see Anderson urging Baumbach to give the film a very disjointed feel. The movie moves in fits and starts, and doesn't flow well at all. The film simply ends, and Baumbach states in the commentary that he didn't want any resolutions for the characters. Well, that's great that he wants to stick with the realism of the situation, but we as an audience need some sort of closure and should never be left wondering if the film broke. Baumbach spreads himself too thin by trying to show the viewpoints of all four characters. This approach works somewhat for Walt and Bernard, but we never fully grasp what Joan is doing, save for the fact that she's moving on with her life.

The Squid and the Whale does a great job of analyzing divorce, but it fails as entertainment. The movie has been classified as a comedy and was nominated for a Best Picture Golden Globe in the Musical or Comedy category, but I found little of the film to be amusing. There are some clever signs and a few chuckles, but for the most part, the film is very depressing and bleak. American Pie and There's Something About Mary show inappropriate uses of semen for comedic effect, but the similar scenes in this film are genuinely disturbing.

The Squid and the Whale swims onto DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is somewhat sharp and clear, but it does have some issues. The film was shot on Super 16mm film. Through this medium, we get very nice colors and a pleasant depth of field. But, the image also shows some grain and is slightly flat at times. Also, there are some very minor defects from the source image, such as white dots. The image shows some very minor artifacting. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The surround sound effects are limited to musical cues and street-noise scenes, but when they occur, they are quite satisfying. I didn't notice much in the way of bass response.

The The Squid and the Whale DVD contains a few extras. Writer/director Noah Baumbach provides an unorthodox Audio Commentary in which he discusses specific facets of the film while we watch stills from the movie. This takes place over 52 minutes and encompasses 35 chapters. He states that he didn't want to do a traditional commentary because if he had anything else to say about the film then he would have put it in the movie. "A Conversation with Noah Baumbach and Phillip Lopate" (37 minutes) shows a talk recorded at the New York Film Festival '05. Here Baumbach further discusses the themes of the film and the making of the movie. "Behind the Scenes of The Squid and the Whale" (10 minutes) features comments from Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, William Baldwin, and Baumbach, as well some behind-the-scenes footage.

5 out of 10 Jackasses

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