2005-11-04 / Columnists


By Robert Snyder

Despite its title, “The Squid and the Whale,” is not a sequel to “March of the Penguins.”

Still, there is a parallel. While “Penguins is about the mating ritual of a certain animal in a cold climate, “Squids” examines the marital breakup of humans with ice in their veins.

Written and directed by Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) protégé Noah Baumbach, “Squids” tells the semi-autobiographical story of the divorce of two urban intellectuals and its effect on their two young sons. Based on the breakup of his own parents (film critic Georgia Brown and novelist Jonathan Baumbach), the movie is set in Brooklyn’s Park Slope where the filmmaker grew up and casts himself as 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg).

When Walt and his 12-year-old brother Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) learn of their folk’s impending divorce, Walt is furious at his mother, Joan (Laura Linney), blaming her and siding with his Dad, Bernard (Jeff Daniels). Walt is particularly irked by the discovery that his mother has committed multiple adultery, her latest conquest being tennis pro Ivan (William Baldwin) who has buddied up to the boys during recent lessons.

Frank allies with Mom, attacking Dad verbally and competitively during aggressive ping pong games at his father’s new-old rundown house, where the boys are forced to live half the week as per the joint custody settlement (one of Walt’s friends puts it bluntly, “Joint custody sucks.” The younger brother also discovers another way to let off steam: He masturbates in unlikely places like the public library.

The subtext behind the divorce is intellectual competitiveness. Once a best-selling author, Bernard now barely scratches out a living as a teacher. However, Joan has started flexing her creative muscles with the publication of a story in The New Yorker.

So what’s with the title?

It refers to Walt’s childhood fear of a whale fighting a giant squid in the Museum of Natural History. At the end of the movie, he confronts the exhibit with a long stare, which must mean something.

“The Squid and the Whale” is well acted and wittily written, but lacks the power punch of the great divorce movie, “Kramer vs. Kramer.” In fact, “Squids” is almost too intellectual for its own good, which is why you won’t see it on the box office’s hit list. Still, the film coolly conveys the icy effect of divorce on children.

Penguin kids have it better.

‘The Squid And The Whale’ – Divorce, Intellectual Style

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