To Wed and To Fail

People over age 50 are signally absent from Park Slope, Brooklyn. It’s a neighborhood where members of the “creative class” move during their breeding years to mate, spawn, and keep housepets. The elegant brownstones are spacious and just barely affordable, grocery stores and veterinary clinics abound, the streets remain fairly safe, and a majestic park sits atop the hill. What better place to fall in love and raise a family? But here comes the paradox. No zone—besides perhaps a college dormitory—could be more hostile to monogamy. Or as an ex-girlfriend once put it to me, “I’ve always thought the point of urban areas is variety.” The density of the Slope’s educated, attractive, liberal-minded population translates—for the single person, or the wayward spouse—into a practically limitless array of analogous sexual options within walking distance. The lonesomeness of the uncoupled, or the isolation of marital strife, can be assuaged without difficulty. Someone else will always be thirsty too, and chances are he or she is pretty good-looking, attended a respected college, holds a really interesting job, has an intriguing ethnic background, and there’s always the thrill of seeing the inside of someone else’s apartment.

All three of Noah Baumbach’s films partake of the neighborhood and its pathologies. Kicking and Screaming—memorable for the apt phrase “Park Slope—division B Manhattan”—was about postcollegiate life, and Mr. Jealousy was a rather conventional romantic comedy—stilted for the most part but enlivened in its second half by a couple of ingenious twists. The new Baumbach feature, The Squid and the Whale, is far denser and more elegant than anything he has done before; as Jeff Daniels’s Bernard Berkman might put it, it’s the “filet” of his young career. It is hard, then, to ignore the presence in the opening titles of Wes Anderson, credited as a coproducer. Baumbach cowrote Anderson’s lackluster The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; there Anderson (and Baumbach) sailed into a stylistic Bermuda Triangle, allowing whimsy to overwhelm plot, character, even wit. From that angle, The Squid and the Whale plays like a correction. Indeed, our first glimpse of the Berkman family unraveling on a tennis court brings a gasp of recognition. The irony and the funny costumes have been stripped away. These are the real Tenenbaums.

The film’s didactic first line, “It’s Mom and me against you and Dad,” describes both the doubles match on the court and the way an impending separation and divorce will polarize the Berkman family. The Andersonian formula from Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums—whereby precocious children behave like adults and adults behave like naughty adolescents—seems to be in effect, but it soon enough collapses under pressure from each character’s peculiar pathology. Faced with their parents’ breakup, the Berkman children, high school-age Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and middle schooler Frank (Owen Kline), take sides and scold their parents. Their efforts fail, and the sexual restlessness at the root of the divorce infects the family like a virus.

Both parents are writers. Bernard, an experimental novelist, makes a modest living teaching creative writing, but his career has fallen on hard times: he’s agentless. He blames the failure of his marriage on his lack of commercial success, a view parroted by Walt: “The publishing industry often doesn’t recognize real literary talent.” Bernard’s wife of seventeen years, Joan (Laura Linney) is just starting out—”Dad’s the real writer,” says Walt—but with a bang, publishing a novel with Knopf, excerpted in the New Yorker. (Filmmakers, it seems, have trouble conveying literary success in any other way; the plot of last year’s We Don‘t Live Here Anymore also hinged on an acceptance letter from the New Yorker. Why not Harper‘s? Granta? Salmagundi?) That is not the only bang in her life. As a late-night phone call intercepted by her husband reveals, she’s been sleeping around the neighborhood.

The loose model for the divorce is Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, a novel displayed spine out on the family bookshelf. Joan, we learn, is a sort of rising Carrie to Bernard’s downward-spiraling Hurstwood. She was an ingenue when she met Bernard in Ohio, where presumably no one reads or writes much, or sees interesting films. “There was no one like your father in Columbus,” she tells her elder son. Bernard served as her mentor while she did the work of the helpmate, bearing the children, cooking the meals, cleaning the house. The marriage brought her to Brooklyn, and spurred her literary activity to the point where she is ready to throw off her domineering mentor. She no longer takes Bernard’s advice on her work, and she has found sexual gratification elsewhere. After all, the point of urban areas is variety, and there are plenty of fellow PTA members and local tennis pros who pose no rivalry to her burgeoning talent. For Joan, the separation is the last step in a long process of self-realization, which is why she spends a lot of time looking in the mirror. Linney, capable of schmaltz (You Can Count on Me, Love Actually) and gratuitous hamming (Mystic River), adeptly conveys bitterness toward her spouse and affection toward her children, her pale, egg-shaped face cracking when one of them blames her for “ruining a great family.” It is hard, though, to imagine her as the lustful and slutty adulteress she’s reported to be, hopping sack with the fathers of her sons’ peers; we see her mostly through the sons’ eyes, and they’d rather not think about it, unless they’re drunk.

Perspective is both a problem and a virtue in The Squid and the Whale. Only three brief scenes show us Bernard and Joan squaring off without the kids around. This is frustrating, as their interactions have an adult bite, close to that of Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. There are plenty of films about New York kids whose families are in a state of meltdown; Igby Goes Down (insane father, dying mother) and Tadpole (overworked father, hot stepmother) are a couple of recent examples. In such films, the thoughtful adolescent boy serves as the filmmaker’s surrogate, critiquing the hapless parents and neatly learning he’ll have to live life for himself. But for Walt, this easy critique is complicated by his own desire to enter his parents’ artistic competition. It’s a game he can’t yet win, so he cheats, passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own composition. Before the fraud is exposed, Bernard approvingly points out affinities to his fiction in the song. It’s a devious turn to use classic rock as more than mere ornamentation, and a coy sign from Baumbach that he’s worried he may be ripping off his parents.

Alongside the anxiety of influence, the Berkman boys must endure the anxieties of puberty. Walt acquires his first sweetheart, a dowdy blonde in pearls named Sophie. Advised by his father to consider “playing the field,” he alienates her before they mutually dispose of their virginity, but after a humorous hand job. Meanwhile, Frank discovers masturbation, and takes to smearing his spunk on various surfaces around school. Scored to comically dark synth music, these scenes of Solondzesque mischief tread perilously close to de rigueur indie transgression. They are necessarily the most exaggerated in the film, but they suffice as comic relief.

And it is from the plight of Bernard Berkman, obsequiously shown reading Saul Bellow’s The Victim, that we need such relief. In beard and tweeds, at once charismatic and pathetic, Daniels’s Bernard is a cousin of Anderson’s strung-out middle-aged men—the Bill Murray characters in Rushmore and The Life Aquatic and Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum—but unlike them, he is not allowed redemption. He seeks solace in an affair with a twentysomething student who writes fiction “about her cunt” (Anna Paquin) and in his sons’ loyalty. Instead he is relentlessly humiliated, expelled from home, and finally abandoned in a hospital bed. Frank shrugs off his father’s questions about what he wants to be when he grows up and declares himself a philistine, like the nonintellectuals his mother has been sleeping with. Walt’s idolization of his father slowly rots into contempt. He senses that he stands to inherit Bernard’s faults—arrogance, snobbery, self-defeating stubbornness—and he bolts. In the film’s last few scenes we watch Walt groping for something meaningful, dunking his head in a pond in Prospect Park and going to the Natural History Museum to look at the squid and the whale of the title. These symbols are unsatisfying and meaningless; that is, they’re true to what it’s like to be a 16-year-old boy.

The Squid and the Whale made me curious about Baumbach’s father, the writer Jonathan Baumbach. A member of Fiction Collective and head of the creative writing program at Brooklyn College until 2000, the elder Baumbach is an exponent and practitioner of “difficult” fiction. (His son mocks this gently by having Bernard repeatedly tell his sons, “Oh, don’t be difficult.”) I found On the Way to My Father‘s Funeral: New and Selected Short Stories, issued last year by Low Fidelity, at St. Mark’s. Parallels to the film were everywhere: “It took him five years to discover that his wife was getting it on with his daughter’s best friend’s father, a man he played poker with on Friday night, a man with a history of failed bluffs.” It’s all in there: broken marriages, father-son rivalries, family competition in sports, and the recognizable landscape of Park Slope, unfaithful lovers lurking around every corner. Not the sort of tropes you’d think would be out of place in the mainstream, but the elder Baumbach tends to deploy them with a metafictional hostility toward traditional storytelling. His son plays the same material straighter, and if his movie was a novel, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an excerpt in the New Yorker.

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