The Squid & The Whale is a great film. It is well-written, well-acted, and taut. It deftly captures a slice of life in 1986 Brooklyn.

The Squid & The Whale is an awful film. It is depressing, self-indulgent, and obscene. It’s vapid, a total waste-of-time.

Which of those two statements actually describes The Squid & The Whale, one of the best-reviewed films of 2005? I suppose it depends on your point-of-view. It depends on what you think the purpose of cinema is, what you bring to the movie, and what you’re willing to tolerate in the name of art.

Here’s a plot summary (from Amazon):

The Squid and the Whale follows the divorce of Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) as it wreaks havoc on the emotional lives of their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). Though there’s no plot in the usual sense, the movie progresses with growing emotional force from the separation into the bitter fighting between Joan and Bernard and the hapless, floundering behavior of Walt and Frank, who act out through plagiarism, sexual acts, and drinking.

Some viewers may find the ending too diffuse; others will appreciate that writer/director Noah Baumbach doesn’t wrap up the messiness of life in a false cinematic package. Either way, viewers will appreciate how the specificity of the personalities makes The Squid and the Whale so compelling, as Baumbach has drawn the characters with such detail, both engaging and off-putting, that they leap off the screen. Naturally, he’s greatly helped by the cast: Linney, Eisenberg, Kline, and especially Daniels bite into these often unsympathetic portraits and give fearlessly honest performances, interlocked in both painful and funny ways—rarely have family dynamics been captured so vividly. If there was an ensemble Oscar, this cast would deserve it.

When the credits began to roll, Kris turned to me and said, “That was pretty good.”

“No,” I said. “That was perfect.” I meant it. I think that The Squid & The Whale is brilliant. It has supplanted Good Night, and Good Luck. for the top spot on my Best Films of 2005 list. The Squid & The Whale is great in almost every sense, but I especially love the characters: they are three-dimensional, with clear motives, and they interact in wonderful, true ways. I also love the many telling, tiny details the film observes: the books on the shelves, the glances between lovers, the behavior of adolescents.

Yet I know several people who might have stood up and walked out on this film in the theater, or who would have stopped watching on DVD after half an hour. Why the difference in opinion? It’s a question that strikes to the heart of the way we view cinema in our lives.

The Squid & The Whale is one of a class of films: serious-minded mostly-independent movies that are more motivated by character than by plot. Sideways and Lost in Translation are two prominent examples of recent films of this nature. (Others include Junebug, In the Bedroom, and Welcome to the Dollhouse.)

I like these films because they’re grounded in Real Life. They show real people reacting in real ways to real situations. They show the tumult of emotions and decisions that make up day-to-day existence. They present complex characters, characters that possess elements of the good, elements of the bad, and elements of the ugly.

Because these films are character-driven rather than plot-driven, many people find them dull. But mostly, the people who dislike these films say one of two things: “This isn’t Real Life.” or “I don’t want to watch a movie about Real Life. Real Life is depressing enough. I go to the movies to escape.”

In response to the former, I want to say that these films do depict Real Life. They may not depict your life, but they depict the lives of real people in very real ways. I’m often shocked at how narrow a view of the world (even their immediate world) some people have. Their lives are normal, and they cannot imagine what it’s like to live differently. Are people actually so unaware as to realize that situations as portrayed in these films really are normal to somebody else?

In response to the latter, there’s not much I can say. If you look to cinema solely for entertainment, then these films are not for you. Cinema as entertainment is fine for what it is — escapism — but it does not have the power to tell us anything about ourselves. And it’s true that cinema as art does not always bring us joy, but what it can do is teach us something new about the world, and about people. To me, as a writer, it is much more impressive to read (or see) a story in which real people live and learn and change than it is to read (or see) a story about a giant monster rampaging loose in the middle of a city. Telling an entertaining story is easy; telling a story about Real Life is difficult.

Ultimately, there’s a place for all sorts of films. I only wish that more people would give these small character-driven films a chance. They really are things of beauty.

6 Replies to “The Squid & The Whale”

  1. J.D. says:

    You know, the older I get, the worse my homonym misspelling problem becomes. If you spot a homonym in a weblog entry, please tell me.

  2. Lynn says:

    I’m glad to read your review. I’ve been toying with whether or not to rent this. It’s funny, I hated Lost in Translation, though so many people adored it. But, I really, really liked Junebug. I like the type of character-based movie you described – I honestly think I just dislike Scarlett Johansson. I’m anxious to see Squid and the Whale.

  3. Dave says:

    Although it may reveal a weakness in character on my part, when I watch a movie I want it to be either a) entertaining, ie The Fellowship of the Ring, or b) thought provoking, ie. The Fog of War. What I don’t want is a slice of someone else’s “real life”. If I want a slice of that I’ll go to the office.

    That said, I think this one is on our list of “we’ll get it at the rental place if/when we remember that we want to watch a movie at home” precisely because it’s gotten such starkly different reviews.

  4. Josh says:

    Telling an entertaining story is easy

    Then do so. Easily.

    (Tsk, tsk. You should’ve known I wouldn’t let you get away with a remark like that! 😉

  5. buster says:

    JD, have you seen Me, You, and Everyone We Know? It’s simlar, in that it is probably not for everyone. But I liked it.

  6. tim says:

    I enjoy both kinds of film – the plot driven and the character driven. Unfortunately, the problem I find in many character driven films is that the characters don’t develop. And if your film isn’t plot driven, then character development has to be (simply must be!) evident. Otherwise, you’re just watching a casting call.

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