Whale of an intellect

First-time director Noah Baumbach's The Squid And The Whale is unusually brainy - just like him


THE SQUID AND THE WHALE written and directed by Noah Baumbach, with Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin and Anna Paquin. 88 minutes. A Capri Releasing Film. Opens Friday (October 21). For venues and times, see Movies, page 102. Rating: NNNNN


Park City, Utah – “Breeding” is such an unpleasant word, but Noah Baumbach has it.

As a publicist ushers us into a vacant restaurant, he throws over a look. Let’s ignore the swag and buzz that brought us here, it says. Let’s talk ideas instead.

Baumbach isn’t especially rich or high-born, but he was raised among books. He’s good friends with fellow cogitator Wes Anderson, with whom he wrote The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Like the parents he exposes in The Squid And The Whale, Baumbach’s own folks are intellectuals.

“My father was a teacher and a writer,” he explains, “and my mother is a writer.” Village Voice readers know Baumbach’s mom as Georgia Brown.

The advantage of egghead parents is the tools they give you to understand and analyse your world. For the parents, that’s exactly the disadvantage as well.

In The Squid And The Whale, Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play Brooklyn writers in the 80s who nearly cripple their two sons with a mix of intellectual rigour and vain neglect. Thankfully, Baumbach’s own writing is precise and funny enough to make this one of the best films of the year. At Sundance he won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the prize for best drama direction.

“When I was writing the movie I thought I was writing a comedy,” he recalls. “So when I started showing it to people during editing I was always looking for laughs. But people would tell me they were almost afraid to laugh at certain points. They found it funny, but it also felt raw to them. Now I’ve gotten used to judging a screening not just by the laughs,” he says, “but by the silence.”

Just then David Bowie’s Changes seeps in from the background. Every lyric calls Baumbach’s name.

“For me,” he says, “this movie was a breakthrough. I discovered who I am as a writer and a filmmaker. It sounds dramatic, but it was dramatic for me. I changed a lot.”

He now thinks he wrote his first film, Kicking And Screaming, “much more from a joke standpoint. I’m proud of that movie, I like things about it, but there are things you don’t know at that age.”

With The Squid And The Whale, “I discovered that this was the sort of movie that I should have been making all along.”

The trick of the film is how it balances the insights of adulthood – Baumbach is 36 – with the intense eye for parental hypocrisy that’s common to all teenagers. To get back to that world, Baumbach went beyond ideas to physical reminders.

“I fear it sounds like a gimmick,” he admits, “but I dressed Jeff Daniels in my dad’s clothes, and I used my mom’s real books. I wanted to bring as many elements of the reality into it to connect me to the emotions of that time, almost in a Proustian way.”

That he can use “Proustian” so unselfconsciously is the most charming thing about the man.

In person Baumbach is serious, speaking fast, interrupting himself with clarifications. Both he and his film seem more grounded than the rabbit hole of personal references that’s come to define his writing buddy Wes Anderson.

But Baumbach protests. “I love that movie and I loved working on it,” he says of The Life Aquatic. “We met every day and we wrote together. It was very collaborative.”

So how to explain the chasm between the two films?

“Life Aquatic reminds me of movies like Godard’s Contempt, or Fellini – things that are colourful and big and extreme. Squid And The Whale is more like a Rohmer or early Truffaut movie.

“They’re complementary, and not just because of the nautical titles.”

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Noah Baumbach) Rating: NNNNN

Jesse Eisenberg stars as a Brooklyn teenager in the 1980s whose parents (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) subject the family to a nasty split-up. Both parents are authors with PhDs in literature, but that doesn’t stop them from inflicting almost farcical selfishness on their kids. Baumbach (Kicking And Screaming) based the story on his own youth, and is ruthlessly precise in showing how the sons mirror their parents’ vanities.

Unlike his sometime collaborator Wes Anderson, Baumbach’s direction is clear and naturalistic, and the writing is superb. There’s also at least one award-worthy performance here: Daniels crafts a flinty portrait of the artist as an aging asshole that matches or bests Jeff Bridges’s work in The Door In The Floor.

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