Saturday, January 28, 2006

Movie Report: The Squid and the Whale

The professional reviewers call Noah Baumbach's latest film, The Squid and the Whale, "literary autobiography." After the redefinition of truth that James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" has wrought on our culture, I guess that means it's autobiography that has been jazzed up to make it more interesting. (For a more in-depth discussion of "literary autobiography," read Elaine P. Maimon's article.)

The movie is about a divorcing New York City couple in 1986, who are competing with each other as writers and as parents. The father is a novelist and a professor, but his last published novel was years ago. He is still coasting on the recognition it brought him. The wife is up and coming professionally, with a newly-published New Yorker article and a book about to be published. The two sons, caught in the middle, are 17 and 14 and "act up" as the psychologists say, because of the family pain.

Although I love to read books and am an avid New Yorker fan, if all authors were like these people, I would seriously consider giving up reading and taking up hunting or something as a hobby. How could people as clueless as these write anything remotely interesting? The father, played by Jeff Daniels, is, maybe slightly more despicable than the mother, Laurey Linney, but neither are people you would want to spend much time with. The self-centeredness, the name-dropping, the one-upmanship, the attempt to impress with meaningless literary blather.

Baumbach's parents are well known film critics, Georgia Brown, who writes for The Village Voice, and Jonathan Baumbach, who has written 10 novels, none of whom I had ever heard. If I were Noah's parents, I would want to sue for his depiction of the family. If this is the essential truth (if not the literal truth) of what Baumbach's family was like growing up, he has a little of my sympathy, although not very much, because, after all, this is his second major movie, the other one being "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," which came out in December, 2004, and he is married to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was named as one of America's 10 most beautiful women in 1986 by Harper's Bazaar Magazine. Really, how bad could life be for Baumbach?

When I suggested seeing this movie last weekend, my wife said, "I'm not planning on getting a divorce." Well, duh, when I went to see "Fun With Dick and Jane," I wasn't planning on robbing a bank either. Despite my disgust with the characters, I thought the movie was well done and highly recommend it. For anyone with children contemplating a divorce, I would say see the movie before you shell out the money for half a dozen marital counseling sessions. I gave it four stars.


Anonymous said...

So you didn't think it was black comedy (more black than comedy)? Surely you had a few laughs at the absurdities in their idea of joint custody, their self-centeredness and the boy's attempts to adapt while going through the stand teenage issues. Even the cat got in the mix.

As one teenage friend said "joint custody sucks"

Parents beware.

Amishlaw said...

I forgot to say that it was funny. It was very funny at times, but we were laughing at the family, not with them.

PG said...

The article about literary autobiography (linked in the blog) is interesting, if only because the author says this is so difficult a genre. I'm not sure I agree; it seems to be the very thing most bloggers and memoirists and, well, everybody else do. Does? Anyway, we are always writing our life stories, one way or another.