The Squid and the Whale(Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 3.21.2006)
It ain't always easy to appreciate Noah Baumbach's latest and greatest effort The Squid and Whale as a comedy. Loosely inspired by Baumbach's childhood, the film charmingly takes you into the deep, dark depths of divorce and how it devastatingly (and amusingly) corrupts the entire family. As a child of divorce, I've got to give the film credit for nailing the inexplicable emotions and actions that arise from such unfortunate events. The overall shittiness of the breakdown of the family unit is appropriately portrayed cinematically. We don't need to see the parents get back together -- or have one of them die -- to feel a sense of redemption towards the end of the film. In fact, Jesse Eisenberg's character is loosely based on Baumbach as a child so I guess things worked out for the guy.
Baumbach treats his characters with respect and by no means seems overwhelmingly bitter over how things went down when he was a boy, which is one of many elements that make The Squid and the Whale one of the year's best films. Baumbach and his collaborators hit everything out of the park: the script, cast, soundtrack, cinematography, editing, and overall direction are all top notch. The film's curt and confident eighty-one minute running time is also a major asset. There's no filler to be found here.
The actors are all perfectly cast, masterfully balancing intense drama and dark humor. Jeff Daniels should've been nominated for best actor with his flawless performance here. Jesse Eisenberg and Laura Linney are also absolutely extraordinary, as is Owen Kline (son of Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline) who, at his young age, completely blew me away with his general wisdom regarding his character's spiritual and sexual awakening.
The direction is also one of the film's great virtues. As we all (should) know, Baumbach co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson (who produced this film). While Baumbach's style and sensibility are not unlike Anderson's, Squid is more rewarding and truer-to-life than anything Anderson's made thus far. Don't get me wrong, I love Wes Anderson's films and I believe that he's an exceptionally skilled and confident artist, but his work is so heavily ornamented and overly symmetrical that it becomes entirely inhuman. As much as I enjoy Anderson's whimsical style, I think Squid's perfectly imperfect, lived-in look adds to the overall integrity of the storytelling.
Baumbach could make thirty films like Squid (which only cost around $1.5 million) for every Anderson film. All and all, Baumbach's latest film has more wit, emotion, and honesty than almost any other broken family film in recent memory (like, say, The Royal Tenenbaums). Anderson should take note because his deliberate style-over-substance approach is beginning to lose its novelty.
There seems to be some confusion regarding the transfer on this DVD, which intentionally appears soft and grainy. Baumbach chose to shoot the film on inexpensive Super 16, which gives it a look similar to the independent films of the eighties (namely the films of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers) that he grew up admiring.
The extras may seem skimpy but, as Daniels' character would say, they are fairly dense. First up is a commentary track with Baumbach. Instead of having us watch the film while he narrates, we get a fifty-minute commentary over still images from the set. Baumbach claims that he did this because he personally doesn't want to have to watch a film again just to hear the commentary. The still photo/mini commentary approach didn't really win me over, even if it was done with good intentions. It's almost impossible to just sit there and listen to a commentary when there are practically no visuals. Luckily, the quality of the track is rather impressive.
Next up is a thirty-seven minute conversation between Baumbach and author Phillip Lopate that unfortunately recycles several anecdotes from the commentary. Lopate does ask some interesting questions that even Baumbach had not thought about during shoot. Overall, this is a pleasant addition to the commentary (plus, it's always nice to see people moving and speaking). Also included is a ten-minute featurette and an insert with two reviews by L.A. Times' Kenneth Turan and The New Yorker's David Denby. Lastly (if you count this as an extra), are a dozen trailers for other films. What I really don't get is why they have to force that silly Snoop Dogg trailer on us before the menu. Who the hell is in charge of marketing over at Sony?
In the eloquent words of several of the film's characters: "hey brotha, don't be a philistine", take this modest masterpiece out for a spin. And if you don't, I've got five words for you: "suck my dick, ass man!" Baumbach's words, not mine. -- Neil Karassik