The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The Squid and the Whale

Time for me to buck the overwhelming critical majority yet once again. The critics loved this movie. I went into it with a pessimistic attitude. From what I had heard, it was 81 minutes of people being nasty to each other, and I simply don’t like that kind of thing. Debbie chided me with: “But you like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, don’t you?” At the end of the movie, I turned and said: “That’s got a LONG way to go before it gets to Virginia Woolf territory.”

The film is based on the childhood pain of living through a contentious divorce by writer/director Noah Baumbach. It runs into the familiar trap of being a project based on one person’s reality where that person is the conceiver, writer, and director. Nobody can really act as a check or balance to his vision. And there are many times when his vision is simply too glossy.

The film feels true, but doesn’t resonate like it should. Mainly because the figures of the feuding parents and the wounded children being lobbed about as beanbags all come from the viewpoint of a high school mind caught up in the middle of the dysfunction. This needs an outsider’s perspective to ask why the people are acting the way they are and to find balance in the portrayals.

The actors all do excellent work. Jeff Daniels is particularly good as the once important author father who is now mostly a close-minded blowhard has-been. His character though is the creation of a seriously disillusioned son who goes from a blind hero-worship to supposedly a more objective and aware viewpoint. But I would argue that he has merely shifted to the other side of the divide, with a similarly clouded rethinking of the father as villain.

There are unsubtle nudges in the ribs throughout the film that made me grimace. A book lying on the table is “The Victim.” A movie poster is “The Mother And The Whore”. And a semi-major subplot revolves around almost nobody in 1986 being aware of the Pink Floyd song “Hey You.” The album was hugely, amazingly popular from 1979 on. The touring show was trumpeted in popular media. The songs were played on the radio all the time. And the band broke up in a blaze of popular media, lawsuits, and publicity in 1985, right before the movie’s action. But the movie treats the band and the song like some cult underground secret known only to a few cognoscenti. The choice of the song and its lyrics is also about as subtle as the book and movie titles.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a BAD film. It just didn’t strike me in the end as amounting to much. It’s a “slice of life” depiction of an unfortunately common occurrence in modern American society. Families breaking up is a painful thing to witness and I’m sure an awful thing to go through yourself. But my layman’s opinion is that Noah could use a bit more cognitive psychology sessions with a good therapist to see that he has traded one defense mechanism for another. It’s surely a step forward to be able to look at the squid and the whale without flinching. It’s a much more difficult step to be able to accept both of the combatants equally without demonizing one or the other.

Parents, this is not a movie for the kids. There are sexual situations, underage drinking, lots of swearing, and a mature subject that could feel traumatizing to children.


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