A week and a half ago now, the cinetrix took herself to New York for a short stint. She arrived midafternoon on a Wednesday, traded the Pickler her suitcase for housekeys [and sold four jars of pickles] at the Union Square Greenmarket, and then retired to the bookstore to research film-watching options. The shiny offerings at the nearby Regal tempted, but I soon realized what I had to do and set off south on Broadway, destination the Angelika, for a screening of The Squid and the Whale.
In ways I can't quite put my finger on, it seemed almost overdetermined to watch Noah Baumbach's Brooklynites in extremis flick at the Angelika, alongside the self-satisfied sorts likely to greet each of his grace notes with knowing chuckles. You know, kinda like seeing a Woody Allen at the Thalia or something. Soon, however, I was too deep into the fucked-up family dynamics of the Berkmans to care.
Everyone knows the basic outline of the story by now. Its unoriginality is one of the film's charms. Bernard is a novelist whose star is on the wane; writer wife Joan's is on the rise. Teenage son Walt is a little shit who emulates Bernard's pompous pronouncements on Dickens and dating; eleven-year-old Frank wants nothing more to be a "philistine"--Bernard's term--like his tennis-pro idol Ivan. The parents separate, the kids split their time between their old Park Slope brownstone and the shabby new one Bernard has rented across the park, and they all take turns leaving their dignity in their other pair of pants.
As Joan, Laura Linney insists on being an adult around her children, who yearn for the less complex days when she was just Mom. And as Bernard, Jeff Daniels swept the cinetrix straight back to The Purple Rose of Cairo, so despicable and endearing is he. I would have had an ill-advised crush on insecure Walt [Jesse Eisenberg] in high school, but now it's Owen Kline's Frank who owns my adult heart in all his beer-swilling, cum-smearing, swear-shouting glory.
About those grace notes. Bernard would want us all to acknowledge his impeccably elevated taste by clocking the Eustache poster in Walt's new room and nodding rather than flinching when he praises writing student Lili's piece on her cunt. But his preening intellectualism is still so empty and Eighties, somehow. Replace Brett Easton Ellis's brand names with clips of Blue Velvet and lip-tracing nods to A Bout de Souffle, and you've got Bernard's presentation of self dead to rights. Baumbach nails these details, and, in so doing, deftly undermines Bernard. [To this end, the use of Tangerine Dream's "Love on a Real Train" is an especially nice touch.]
But the one thing I want to laud Baumbach for that I haven't seen mentioned elsewhere is a small detail that nearly ripped me in two. It's after the split, and Bernard is making dinner for the boys in his new place. You may think I'm going to mention how he manages to drop the meat on the kitchen floor while he's cooking, then lies about it, but that's not it. It's those enormous carrots we see growing cold on the boys' plates while he's struggling in the kitchen. At the heart of this story about a fractured family is a self-deluded man who cannot time the elements of a meal--who has never had to--and it's heartbreaking to see.