A Harsh Corrective

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


THE SQUID AND THE WHALE

 

Directed by Noah Baumbach

 

WALLACE AND GROMIT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT

 

Directed by Nick Park

 

Noah Baumbach’s Reagan-era domestic drama
The Squid and the Whale is about a Park Slope family shattered by divorce. It’s a sweet and
funny (if visually unremarkable) take on the end of innocence, the awkwardness of teenage sex,
the ugly feelings dredged up when parents split and all the other subjects you expect to see tackled
in this sort of movie. But Squid also manages two other more original achievements: It’s
an icily polite takedown of aging bourgeois intellectuals who puff themselves up into oracles
so they won’t feel like failures, and an acknowledgment that when parents’ failings inflict emotional
wounds on children, pop culture can serve as a Band-Aid.

 

Married writers Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney)
stayed together mainly for the sake of their sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline).
The Berkman household is Received Wisdom Central, with the children demonstrating their love
for (and loyalty to) their parents by regurgitating their gaseous pronouncements. (Elmore Leonard,
says Bernard, is “the filet of the crime genre.”) The family’s deadpan snobbishness binds them
to each other and establishes their superiority over the “Philistines,” a mouth-breathing species
represented by the family’s tennis instructor, Ivan (William Baldwin), a genial dope who ends
every other sentence with “mah brothah.”

 

The family’s split-up exposes their smug pretension as a defense mechanism,
a showy repudiation of a larger world that never really noticed them anyway. The grey-bearded Bernard
is a creative writing professor still coasting on the fumes of his early success. He seems happy
only when flirting with his star pupil, Lili (Anna Paquin, who, creepily enough, played Daniels’
daughter in Fly Away Home) and grousing about how uneducated and undemanding everyone
else is. Joan, once Bernard’s protege, is now writing fiction that’s as good as
Bernard’s early stuff, and saleable, too. But like Bernard, Joan seems to view her sons mainly as
reflections of her own history and intellect. When the Berkmans subject the kids to an unwieldy
joint custody arrangement, the boys are no longer constrained by the centripetal force of living
in the same house, and start acting out. Frank becomes a secret drinker and a compulsive (sometimes
public) masturbator; Walt continues parroting his parents’ snooty verdicts on books he hasn’t
personally read, and takes the self-deception a step further by teaching himself Pink Floyd’s
“Hey You” on guitar and claiming to have written it himself. (Walt’s defensethe outgrowth
of life among wannabe-geniusesis that he could have written it.)

 

The boys’ polite, mysterious meltdowns seem a fitting response to Joan
and Bernard’s passive-aggressive, intellectual brand of control.

 

They don’t lash out, they implode, taking bystanders with them. Needling
“liberal academics” in The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer wrote, “If you did not do what
they wished, you had simply denied them.” The Berkmans are that unthinking; they dominate without
even knowing it. Baumbach illustrates the family’s collapse by drawing on his own history (he’s
the son of novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown),
then placing it in a larger cultural context. The director isn’t content merely to get back at Mom
and Dad; he admits the haplessness and emotional blindness of several generations’ worth of East
Coast intellectuals.

 

Squid is executive-produced by whimsy master Wes Anderson, Baumbach’s
writing partner on The Life Aquatic. Predictably, some mixed to negative reviews of Squid have dismissed it as a scaled-down rehash of Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, with wild
handheld camerawork substituting for Anderson’s insanely detailed CinemaScope panaoramas.
But where Tenenbaums ended on an up note, with the vain, selfish patriarch healing his broken
family and dying a domestic martyr, Squid leaves the Berkmans’ distress unresolved, as
if to suggest that Joan and Bernard’s divorce opened wounds that remain unhealed to this day. Squid could be considered a harsh corrective to Anderson’s wishful thinking: not nostalgia, but its
opposite.

 

Baumbach’s canny period details and barbed caricatures will divide
viewers along generational lines, and prompt arguments that seem disproportionate to the film’s
mild tone (but really aren’t). The characterizations are ironic, mildly satirical, at times cartoonish
(in the Peanuts sense), but they’re prompted by real and powerful emotions: resentment at Boomers
who lord their cultural dominance over every successive generation; anger at parents who treat
their children as empty vessels to be filled with freeze-dried cultural opinions, and who spend
more time preaching self-esteem and career satisfaction than teaching right from wrong.

 

The film’s depiction of a certain time, place and pop culture moment
is so anthropologically exact that moviegoers between the ages of 30 and 40 might be moved even if
they don’t particularly like the film. I’m in that demo, so I’ll confess being blindsided by two
under-the-radar music cues: Tangerine Dream’s lust-fogged Risky Business track “Love
on a Real Train,” which accompanies Frank’s Portnoy-esque bumblings, and a spiral-of-sadness
montage scored with the “School House Rock!” piece “Figure 8,” which starts with a plaintive female
vocal and a Bach-like melody played on electric piano. Baumbach’s sophisticated use of pop gives
an otherwise subdued comedy-drama a dark, urgent undertow. The director doesn’t just love his
music and movie references; he clings to them like life preservers in memory’s polluted sea.

 

In Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a stop-motion
epic in which the stalwart pooch Gromit and his erstwhile “master” Wallace try to save London from
the rampaging title beast, writer-director Nick Park hasn’t so much re-imagined his popular short
films as simply inflated them. But you don’t mind because it’s fun; every frame exemplifies Park’s
sense of humor, a kind of brilliant obviousness.

 

Wallace (Peter Sallis) and Gromit now run a non-lethal pest-control
business called Anti-Pesto, which sucks bunnies out of the ground with vacuum tubes. They meet
their match in the Were-Rabbit, which appears after an experiment in which Wallace mind-melds
with a rabbit by way of the Mind-Manipulation-O-Matic and tries to quash the animal’s innate hunger
for vegetables. (If you can’t see the movie’s big plot twist coming, you’ve never seen a movie.)

 

The funniest gags are groaners in the spirit of Mel Brooks circa 1974.
A newspaper headline critical of the duo declares “Anti-Pesto Fails to Turnip in Time.” The prim
Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter), a wealthy gardener who hires Anti-Pesto to rid her palatial
estate of rabbits, unsubtly lets Wallace know that her relationship with great white hunter Victor
Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) isn’t pleasing her. “He’s never shown any interest in my produce,”
she sighs, stroking a pair of melons.

 

Park is a contraptionist filmmaker in the Spielberg-Zemeckis-Jeunet
mode, and there are three action scenes in Were-Rabbit whose precise cutting and flamboyant
yet purposeful camera movements would be more widely praised if they didn’t involve stop-motion
puppets and miniatures. (The Were-Rabbit announces its presence by rumbling just beneath the
earth’s surface, kicking up spines of dirt.) Park has a knack for conferring new identities on inanimate
objects: during a lull in a Were-Rabbit attack at a fairground, a tuft of pink cotton candy rolls
through the frame like a tumbleweed. And there are a couple of in-jokes so sly that they take a while
to sink in. Early in the movie, when Wallace has stepped out of their Anti-Pesto truck and left Gromit
there alone, the dog fiddles with the radio and we hear a few seconds of an Art Garfunkel song: “Bright
Eyes,” from the 1979 rabbit cartoon Watership Down. An obscure flourish, but not unwarren-ted.

..