A Harsh Corrective
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.
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