Okay, for starters, whoever came up with the title for this movie deserves to be shot. Why in god’s name would they give a perfectly articulate, intelligent movie about family and relationships a name that comes straight off the menu in a Japanese seafood place? What were they thinking?
Just to set the record straight then – The Squid and the Whale is an articulate and engaging film that gives new life to the Tolstoy saw about all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way. Jeff Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, an author and a teacher of creative writing in the midst of a full-blown mid-life crisis. Bernard is a Narcissus in denial, a petulant and self-obsessed man who is slowly being forced to face his own failures. As the chasms of his own inadequacy open under Bernard’s feet, he reacts by turning his family into his own personal fiefdom, the world according to Bernard, a land where his judgements and opinions are unquestioned, his authority absolute. As a father and husband, Bernard is a pitiful and troubled tyrant, a mass of overblown ego, a man who can find no way to connect to those whose love he desperately seeks, except through bombast.
What makes Bernard’s insecurities worse is the fact that his wife, Joan, (played to perfection by Laura Linney) is blossoming into her own – while Bernard collects rejection after rejection, his wife has a new book deal and is being published in the New Yorker. Not that Joan is a paragon of any kind – she too is a troubled person, a woman struggling to find the right line between independence and love, between caring and self-assertion. Unlike Bernard, for whom the family is merely a prop for his own ego, Joan is considerate and caring about her family, but as her marriage falls apart (and it is a slow, steady decline – an erosion, rather than a collapse) she cannot resist throwing herself into affair after affair in search of happiness. If Bernard is the embodiment of wounded pride, Joan is a character trembling to be her own person.
Given these differences, a separation between these two seems inevitable, yet the fall-out of that separation is felt most keenly by the couple’s two sons – Walt and Frank. These two are the emotional centre of the film – indeed, what the film is about (to the extent that it is ‘about’ anything) is the way Walt and Frank chart the difficult terrain of their parents separation to become adults in their own right. Adolescence, the movie seems to suggest, is a difficult time at best, but to try to grow into an adult in a divided house is an adventure more than usually fraught with peril. The children emphatically do not cope with this (no one in this film does) – Frank retreats into a murky exploration of his own pubescent sexuality, Walt starts by emulating the glibness of his father, only to discover that facile sophistication is no substitute for good old fashioned genuineness. That the children take sides in the battle between their parents (Walt his father’s, Frank his mother’s) is incidental – the real challenge here is for them to renounce both so as to have some real chance of accepting either. The Whale and the Squid is a fascinating look at how that liberation is achieved.
As such, The Whale and The Squid is a classic example of that now familiar genre – the ‘intelligent’ independent film, where serious performances by skilled actors struggle to both depict life as it actually is and say something coherent about it in the process. It is also, a wry and subtle comedy – a film that makes you laugh at the idiocy of its characters while feeling a great deal of sympathy for them. Featuring superb performances by both Daniels and Linney, the movie’s chief virtue is the exactness of its characters – the confused and uncertainness humanness of their predicament that makes them so easy to relate to. If Bernard outrages us with his opinions (Tender is the Night, it seems, is minor Fitzgerald) it is only because we understand better than we would want to where his pomposity comes from, because we are aware that in our worst moments we too are as petty, as mean spirited.
Bottomline: The Whale and The Squid is a rewarding enough movie to watch – not a great movie, but a clever, thoughtful film that manages to be tender without being sentimental, that manages to be funny without being laughable.