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Squid and the Whale, The

The Criterion Collection // R // November 22, 2016
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted November 26, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

My introduction to the directorial works of Noah Baumbach were basically limited to his recent film Frances Ha, to which my general reaction was "Is THAT it?" I never understood the appeal but respected it. When I had the chance to check out Baumbach's 2005 breakout film The Squid and The Whale, considering it was in the light of the work he did writing a screenplay for/with Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I owed it to myself to give Baumbach another gander.

In The Squid and The Whale we look at a family of four in 1986 Brooklyn. We see the disintegration of Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels, The Martian), who used to be a literary powerhouse but has since stalled into work teaching. Bernard is married to Joan (Laura Linney, The Big C), who is emerging on a writing career of her own. We experience the divorce of the two through the eyes of their kids; the oldest, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra), and the younger, Frank (Owen Kline, Life as a House), as they adjust to living in two homes.

One thing that took me by surprise when it came to The Squid and The Whale was the shortness of the material. At 81 minutes, seeing this family drama would likely be an incomplete experience if one had not been exposed to the film before. But what the story and characters do in such a short period of time is that they allow the kids the chance to tell the story. The film manages to show the processing of the divorce though the kids eyes, and their personal dealings with and reconciliation of the event.

An outsider could have certainly written off Baumbach's presentation of these events with a quirk that Anderson could have imbued to the story. Maybe one of the kids has a proclivity to competitive kung fu or something and it could have reveled in the quirks. The Squid and The Whale shows Walt and Frank's manipulation into picking sides; it's eas for the kids to be with their Dad, but once they see that the Dad is as full of garbage as they may be, it provides another window with which the characters explore.

Even more impressive are the performances of the ensemble; Eisenberg's introduction to the moviegoing public has a certain sense of earnestness to it but also has a ‘Jonathan Silverman in Brighton Beach Memoir' awkwardness, Kline handles this role a little more closely but his emotion is more authentic. Daniels' work (Bill Murray was apparently in contention for Bernard) is a mix of comedy and some cockiness to it, almost as if the role was written for Murray, but executed by Daniels.

The Squid and The Whale paints an effective modern portrait of divorce and children's coping with it in 21st century America, and its shattering of preconceived notions of its parents could very well be plugged in to most everyone in America. Compared to his friend Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach likes showing the viewer the reactions of those most affected by the decisions of the stars and he handles them well in the film.

The Blu-ray:
The Video:

Baumbach supervised a 4K transfer (with cinematographer Robert Yeoman) from the original elements and things look good. Originally shot in Super 16, film grain is welcome to look at, while colors either in Ivan's clothing or the faded greens in the indoor tennis court appear natural and with little complaint for artifacts or image noise. Image detail is a little wanting but that's inherent given the production sensibilities, and the overall experience is a nice presentation from Criterion.

The Sound:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track was remastered from the source material with the results sounding excellent. Dialogue is consistent through this film and the abundant music in it sounds clear though without much in the way of low end dynamic range. Channel panning and directional effects are muted though they do exist and sound clear, and the soundtrack is devoids of cracking, hiss or mosquito noise. There's not much to get wowed from in terms of a dialogue-driven indie comedy but it's a nice listen.

The Extras:

So Criterion gives The Squid and The Whale the treatment that Criterion normally gives films, though there are some reservations to heed when it comes to the supplemental material: new interviews with Baumbach (27:40) and Daniels (7:57) are included, along with a new look at the film (20:14) with interviews with Linney, Eisenberg and Kline, though the earlier DVD release has a commentary with Baumbach and a conversation with same (hosted by critic Phillip Lopate), and those are eschewed here. I can't speak to the substance of those features, though the Baumbach interview on the Criterion release covers his thoughts on writing the script and shooting the film, working around Anderson and with his cast in this feature. Locations and other small production stories are shared as well. The Daniels interview includes his thoughts on the character and story, and how the role helped him in subsequent roles. The retrospective look includes those interviews, thoughts on those characters and working on the film. Five segments of audition footage follow (20:39) which includes Eisenberg. Baumbach interviews composers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips (13:49) about their intent for the music in the film and any relevant challenges and two trailers (4:07) complete things, save for "Behind The Squid and the Whale" (9:55), which was included in the original release.

Final Thoughts:

I enjoyed The Squid in the Whale though did not find it as revelatory or memorable as those who may have seen it when it first aired. It handles its material nicely either when looking at smaller subplots or in the bigger picture. I'm glad that I saw the film but don't find it completely memorable, but the problem in this release is that if you enjoyed the commentary or the interview on the previous disc, you're better off with stayed with them unless you want to time it somehow. If not? Give it a look.

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