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Blu-ray Review: The Squid And The Whale – The Criterion Collection UK Release

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I remember I was still living back home in Italy when The Squid And The Whale (2005) was released in cinemas and trust me, if you weren’t a cinema aficionado like yours truly, catching indie films with no big name actors in theatres was quite an ordeal. If you didn’t go the first weekend, you were most likely bound to miss out.

Despite not really knowing Noah Baumbach and his previous two films, Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1997), I was instantly sold on the premise of a coming of age family drama about two young brothers coping with their parents’ divorce. Going through the same experience in my own life at the time must’ve had something to do with it, even if I was a University graduate from Sicily instead of a teenager from Brooklyn in the 80s.

Taking the dramedy approach peppered with a Woody Allenesque idiosyncratic flavour rather than unfolding like a heavy drama a la Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), The Squid And The Whale takes its peculiar title from the memory of a happier and easier time in the lives of the Berkmans that eldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) reminisces about at some point in the movie, when trying to make sense of the confusion created by his family’s fracture.

The grim state of his parents’ marriage becomes evident from the opening sequence, which finds Walt engaged in a double match of tennis. It’s not just a coincidence that the boy is paired on the court with his father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) – a literature professor and once acclaimed writer stuck in a creative funk – whilst Walt’s pre-teen brother Frank (Owen Kline) is playing alongside their mother Joan (Laura Linney), who’s also a writer, albeit not with the successful career pedigree of her husband.

Rather than being a fun occasion for family bonding, since frame one there’s a palpable level of competitive animosity displayed in this tennis game that clearly betrays a deeper sense of competition within the married couple. As Bernard and Joan eventually announce the news of their separation to their sons, the boys have a hard time coping with the changes brought by the crumbling of their family unit, despite not being surprised by such an outcome.

As Bernard moves into a run-down house nearby, the former couple arranges a schedule to share custody of the boys but it doesn’t take long for the agreed plan to get disrupted by Walt and Frank’s emotional turmoil. The boys’ inclination for taking sides only gets exacerbated by the situation with Frank at some point refusing to stay at Bernard’s and Walt at Joan’s. And who could blame these kids for acting up?

After all, they witness their father getting bitter and jealous of Joan’s sudden writing success when one of her pieces gets published on The New Yorker, whilst he has his latest manuscript rejected by his agent. In typical midlife crisis fashion Bernard reacts to his disastrous moment by getting a crush on one of his attractive students (Anna Paquin) and Joan starts seeing Frank’s tennis trainer (William Baldwin).

Although these narrative ingredients may sound like nothing new on paper, what makes Baumbach’s film a distinctive piece of filmmaking is the sharp, witty humour of the writing, the quasi documentary-like handheld cinematography in Super 16 mm film and the genuine portrayal of the kind of emotional distress that a family’s fracture has on a couple’s offspring, no matter their age. I was 25 when my parents separated after almost thirty years of marriage but being an adult didn’t make it any easier or less painful.

Each family drama is unique to everyone’s own life experience and of course the filmmaker tapped into autobiographical territory for inspiration. However, the level of heartbreak and the sense of instability at the core of an unfortunate event such as divorce are universal and Baumbach conveys all those feelings masterfully and in graceful, nuanced fashion.

The entire cast is pitch perfect and hearing the stories of how they came about to be picked for the roles by the talented filmmaker in the extra features of this Blu-ray special edition is a pleasure and such a compelling watch. The director himself is the subject of an interesting and informative interview featurette purposely taped for this wonderful Criterion Collection edition. He gives lots of insight into his creative process from writing the film to his directorial choices, telling many entertaining anecdotes about life on and off set and commenting on his close friend and often collaborator Wes Anderson being involved with the project as a producer.

The Squid and the Whale marks the beginning of Noah Baumbach’s successful streak as a critics-darling indie auteur and even earned him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. It also showcases some career-best performances by the often underrated Daniels and Linney, teases the promising talent of now A-lister Jesse Eisenberg and a breakthrough turn by the son of actor Kevin Kline, Owen. He has actually left his acting days behind to focus on directing but seeing him all grown up in the extra features interviews right after watching the film where he’s just a child is so cool and almost eerie. This is a film that might have fallen off your radar back in the day but it’s an absolute must see and that’s why you should not miss out on this fantastic Criterion Collection edition.

The Squid And The Whale is out now on DVD and Blu-ray in the Criterion Collection.

Director-Approve Special Edition Features include:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Robert Yeoman and director Noah Baumbach, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • New interviews with Baumbach and actors Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline and Laura Linney
  • New conversation about the score and other music in the film between Baumbach and composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips
  • Behind “The Squid and the Whale”, a 2004 documentary featuring on-set footage and cast interviews
  • Audition footage
  • Trailers

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