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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
The Squid and the Whale (2005)

"You think you hate me, but I know you don't."
- Joan (Laura Linney), to her older son

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: April 02, 2006

Stars: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline
Other Stars: Anna Paquin, William Baldwin
Director: Noah Baumbach

MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and language
Run Time: 01h:21m:08s
Release Date: March 21, 2006
UPC: 043396134942
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-CB- C+

DVD Review

Can you make an empathetic movie about insufferable people? That's the challenge that writer/director Noah Baumbach set himself here, and his movie made him the darling of the literary cognoscenti for a while. No doubt there's plenty of clever stuff in here, and though the director doesn't cop to this outright as autobiography, certainly much of this was drawn from life, giving it the ring of truth. But finally there's an emptiness to the whole exercise—by the end of the running time, you come to feel that every single person in the story is horrid, and you may wish that they would keep their intellectual pretensions and emotional stuntedness to themselves, rather than talking, and talking, and talking.

The story is set at the apex of the two-handed backhand, 1986, and we're in Park Slope, a Brooklyn neighborhood that's since been gentrified and seen real estate prices go through the roof, but at the time was at least modestly family-friendly. Meet the Berkmans—Joan and Bernard's is an unhappy marriage, and years of petty resentments, infidelities and rivalries finally split them apart. Their two boys choose up sides pretty quickly, as things get rancorous—Walt, the older son, idolizes his father and parrots his opinions, therefore blaming his mother for everything. Frank, the younger son, is still close with his mother, and besides, there's not enough room for him in Bernard's solipsistic universe. What we witness, then, are the emotional turns of the four of them as the family unit as they know it implodes—yes, this is the stuff of scads of movies of the week, but the intellectual caste of the Berkmans is deemed to be sufficient to rise them above the masses.

Bernard is a novelist who's been having hard times professionally—he can't get an agent, much less a publisher, and it's an article of faith with him that he's an unappreciated genius. In truth, the character is appalling, and apparently deliberately so—without putting Baumbach on the couch and asking him about his own upbringing, you want him to consider, as a storyteller, that a modicum of sympathy with Bernard would go a long way, and in the long run would in fact make him seem like that much more of a bastard. Joan is eclipsing him in the world of letters, too, for shortly after their separation, she gets a piece accepted in The New Yorker. Husband and wife are played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, and it's really these two performances that carry us along—the piece is so small, and you're so hungering to latch on to anything, that their multidimensionality is remarkable, much more than what's on the page.

There's plenty of emotional shrapnel for their boys, as well—Frank becomes a serial masturbator, Walt a pathological liar. Even worse, the latter becomes one of those guys who thinks it's okay to insult people under the dubious guise of being honest—as you might imagine, this goes over huge with his high school girlfriend. It's a story of two incredibly self-involved parents with the kids to show for it, so emissaries from the outside world are most welcome—William Baldwin plays a doofy tennis pro who's with Joan when the boys are with their father under the joint-custody arrangement, and Anna Paquin is one of Bernard's students, who moves into an extra bedroom, providing sexual temptation and the stuff of fantasy for both father and sons.

You've got to give Baumbach credit for candor, especially about the painful awkwardness of so much of adolescent sexuality, but ultimately his movie feels smug, much like the people in it. A self-congratulatory coming-of-age story suggests that the years haven't brought wisdom, even if the filmmaker has the gift of the poison pen.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Occasional print discolorations mar the transfer; I suspect that this is a product of both careless work on the DVD and the modest budget on which the movie was made.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: A little too much static, but all of the dialogue is audible.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
11 Other Trailer(s) featuring Capote, The Dying Gaul, It's All Gone Pete Tong, Junebug, London, Pretty Persuasion, Saint Ralph, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Tenants, Thumbsucker, Where The Truth Lies
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Noah Baumbach
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
Extras Review: Given the social standing of the characters in the film, you start to get the feeling that the critical establishment looked on this as a glorified home movie of sorts, and that's reflected in the extras package, first in the accompanying booklet, which includes glowing reviews for the film from David Denby (published in The New Yorker) and Kenneth Turan (in The Los Angeles Times). A conversation (37m:31s) between Baumbach and Philip Lopate continues the same themes—this was taped at the New York Film Festival in 2005, and Lopate lays it on thick with his love of the movie. They're much better discussing how Brooklyn has changed since Baumbach's own childhood, and on the difference between being educated and having self-knowledge.

Behind The Squid and the Whale (09m:56s) is standard on-set stuff, with Baumbach, Linney, Daniels, and others from the cast and crew. The director eschews a standard commentary track for a more informal, condensed audio essay of sorts—Baumbach's voice runs over stills from the film, and he discusses writing, casting and shooting the movie, in a track that runs about forty minutes.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

This movie has cleverness in spades, but not much genuine insight—there are fine performances and some smart and honest observations, but ultimately rather than holding the mirror up to nature, this film is far too enamored of its own reflection.


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