Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 23, 2005 5:17 pm 
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Also posted on Filmleaf.

Squirmy sometimes outweighs funny in this coming of age-cum- divorce comedy

Baumbach has crafted a "semi-autobiographical" but fully specific comedy about growing up with a little brother in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in the Eighties -- when their literary parents are splitting up. Baumbach co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson; here he's on his own. A bearded Jeff Daniels and plain Laury Linney give balanced readings of their parts as a pretentious writing teacher whose days of published success fade while his wife gets a book contract and her novel is excerpted in The New Yorker. Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are fine as the two brothers Walt and Frank who have to deal with the colder details of joint custody while their parents are still throwing verbal barbs at each other and rumors of earlier adulteries are coming out, and issues such as who gets the cat -- and the special edition of Bellow's "The Victim" -- are as yet unresolved. William Baldwin is funny but one-note as a laid-back tennis coach called Ivan who turns out to be a wild card. The boys rebel in their different ways and the details of teenage sexuality are painfully detailed. Some will find their antics and their warring parents' tirades squirmy-funny; others will find them just squirmy. There are more embarrassing moments than revelatory ones, but for those who've been there, just seeing the situations may be satisfying enough. Baumbach works in close to his subject for sure. The social and period details are very specific and there are some good scenes.

This is an intelligent autobiographical comedy, but the New York critics have gone a bit overboard in praising it, perhaps because it's a story so close to the New York literary scene, and reviewers from Chicago, Seattle, and Texas have fallen over each other to agree. Baumbach is deemed brilliant because he captures the foibles of the literary intellectual and the adolescent male. Note, however, that the depiction of foibles is as far as the story goes. Its young hero isn't off to anywhere, and the movie is in little discrete chunks, but without the elaborate and complex geniality of The Life Aquatic. Burnbaum's family provides him with a small canvas, and though his portrait of the father is cruel, it does not go deep, and nobody is depicted with any nuance. Still, there is a lot to like here, and kids with divorced parents may find this therapeutic, as the writer/director clearly did.

Noah Baumbach: The Squid and the Whale (USA 2005). 88 minutes. Samuel Goldwin Films/Sony PIctures Entertainment release.
Seen at the New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center September 2005, US release (NY) October 5, 2005.

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