PARTING SHOTS

Directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, Billy Baldwin 16 cert, Cineworld/IFI, Dublin, 81 min

Directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, Billy Baldwin 16 cert, Cineworld/IFI, Dublin, 81 min

 

REVIEWED - THE SQUID AND THE WHALE: Don't let the title put you off Noah Baumbach's witty, sad and original tale of 1980s divorce wars, writes Donald Clarke

NOAH Baumbach's fourth feature won two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival. The director, none of whose earlier work made much noise, is a sometime collaborator of Wes Anderson, that Texan laureate of the quirkily self-absorbed, and was himself raised among intellectuals in a bohemian quarter of Brooklyn.

As if all this doesn't sound worrying enough for those wary of indie tropes, his film, which contains no animated sea monsters, labours under the proudly eccentric title of The Squid and the Whale. Basic Instinct 2 suddenly sounds a lot more attractive.

A glance at the plot synopsis may only serve to stoke apprehension.

Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play a pair of squabbling highbrows in, yes, 1980s Brooklyn. The picture, shot on nostalgically grainy Super 16mm stock, begins with a bad-tempered tennis game involving the couple and their two sons.

"Mom and me versus you and Dad," Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin), the younger of the boys, says chirpily to the older Walt (Jesse Eisenberg). And so it proves. When, shortly afterwards, Bernard and Joan announce their plans to divorce, Walt sides with his pretentious father, while Frank clings to his marginally less precious mother.

It seems as if the younger boy may have bet on the right horse. As Joan's writing career picks up, Frank, once a famous novelist, receives rejection slips from publishers. She begins dating a tennis professional. He lusts after the young student who shares his house. Meanwhile, the kids exhibit evidence of the strain that comes from living in a war zone.

On paper, The Squid and the Whale sounds insufferable. But, against the odds, it turns out to be an unalloyed triumph. What sets it apart from similar exercises in middle-class navel-gazing is a mercilessly satirical attitude towards its characters' affectations.

Bernard,, a corduroy-jacketed boob with the smug confidence that comes from being indulged since birth, is, though entirely believable, a quite monstrous creation. His pronouncements on film, literature and life - "Tale of Two Cities is minor Dickens" - are delivered in an insouciantly definitive tone that admits no contradiction.

We have seen people like him (and Joan) in any number of snooty New York comedies. We suspect such films are made by Bernards. Hell, many of us in the audience are a tad Bernardish ourselves. But, unlike Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, The Squid and the Whale is not a celebration of New York intellectual life. It is, among other things, a witty skewering of that milieu and, by extension, of those who aspire to belong to it.

There is brewing tragedy mixed in with the satire. Assisted ably by his hugely talented juvenile cast, Baumbach, who admits to certain autobiographical tendencies, muses upon the long-term damage divorce can inflict upon children. Bernard embarks on disturbing adventures in creative masturbation. Walt's behaviour suggests that he may have inherited his father's pretentious leanings. "It's very Kafkaesque," he says of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.

But, without resorting to corny redemptive revelations, Baumbach does allow his film a vaguely optimistic finale. It seems possible that Walt may, after all, grow up to do something worthwhile with his life. Perhaps he will make a film as witty, sad and original as The Squid and the Whale.