The Squid and the Whale: Divorce, Drama, & Cephalopod Molluscs

The Squid and the Whale 2005 film

From director Noah Baumbach in 2005, here we have an independent drama production starring Jeff Daniels and the fabulous Laura Linney.

It’s a very witty and honest account of a marriage falling apart and the toll it takes on the family. The film feels a bit obscure and ignored these days, so we wanted to flag it up again right here, right now.

Lessons on How Not to Handle Divorce in The Squid and the Whale

Back in my day, we had PROPER films like The Squid and the Whale! These days you just get WOKE snowflake films like Nic Cage in Pig (2021) and it’s STUPID lefty agenda.

Anyway, mindless and idiotic right-leaning rant aside, this film is a clever look into the world of failing marriages.

For us, this was just another chance to see Laura Linney in action as she’s fabulously talented (see The Truman Show in 1998). But this was also the film that made us realise how tremendous an actor Jeff Daniels is at his best.

The year is 1986. The Berkman family lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Bernard (Daniels) is a pompous and once-promising writer.

He’s married to Joan (Linney), who’s having an affair. She’s also just had a novel published and it’s met with critical acclaim, irking her husband.

The stresses of their relationship too much, they agree to divorce. They inform their sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg in an early role) and Frank (Owen Kline).

The key takeaway from this scene is the quote:

“We didn’t discuss the cat.”

Always… discuss the cat. Always. 🐱

Anyway, the parents agree on joint custody. That seems sensible enough, but the film really is about the parent’s selfish behaviour and half-heartedly thinking about their kids.

Bernard’s ego is such he begins a semi-flirtatious fling with Lili (Anna Paquin, who starred in 1993’s The Piano). She’s one of his students, but actually moves in with him at his new house. Again, this just satisfies his arrogance.

Meanwhile, the two sons react differently to the news.

Younger son Frank (12) begins some odd behaviour, masturbating at school and also drinking beer. He begins to rebel against his father’s intellectual wishes.

Jeff Daniels’ comedic chops (so deftly displayed in 1994’s classic Dumb and Dumber) are on full display there. That pan from Frank to Bernard and his expression? Priceless.

Older son Walt goes the opposite route, arguing with his mother and idolising his father. He’s 16 and trying to express his intellectualism, but at that awkward age when it comes out in stupid sentences rather than anything profound.

Kind of like Professional Moron as an entity, yo!

The reason for the film’s name also emerges, as Walt’s psychologist tells him to focus on a happy memory. This turns out to be with his mother, who took him as a boy to the American Museum of Natural History to see the giant squid and whale exhibition.

Walt has an epiphany and realises his mother is a guiding presence in his life, whilst his father has never been present.

As these personal issues play out, the film culminates with another argument between Bernard and Joan.

However, due to the stress of the situation, Bernard collapses in the street.

For us, this is where the film excels. It so perfectly captures the mundane absurdities of family life, with Bernard yelling about where to find the cat (remember… always discuss the cat) whilst he’s wheeled into an ambulance.

Definitely our favourite moment from the film.

He recovers and later visits Joan at the family home, flaunting that excellent beard again, and getting in another bout of pomposity.

The Squid and the Whale is a little gem of a film. Its contemplative nature turned out to be a great asset, as it was successful.

And it’s the performances of the cast that make it what it is.

Daniels and Linney are brilliant together, sparring away and drifting in and out of matrimonial hell.

You really can’t help but keep watching the egocentric behaviour unfold.

The film’s crew must be praised as well, as it really gives off a vibe of 1986 very well. We grew up in the ’80s, a decade when there was a lingering sense of the ’70s technology hanging around. That didn’t really start budging until the 1990s.

But the film manages a great evocation of the era.

And it is, ultimately, just a poignant depiction of a relationship coming to an end. It’s handled intelligently and with wit, with its script and performances offering what we’d class here as a cult classic.

The Squid and the Whale’s Production

Director Noah Baumbach has made a career of smaller productions, but has often worked with Wes Anderson (of The Grand Budapest Hotel fame).

The pair also worked together on Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).

Along with directing, Baumbach wrote the script to The Squid and the Whale. It’s probably not surprising to learn it was heavily autobiographical—something of a cathartic exercise, clearly.

The whole film was shot in 23 days. Bloody impressive, eh?

Despite its independent nature, its $1.5 million budget resulted in $11.2 million at the box office. So, hurray! It was a minor hit. It also received an Oscar nomination and was up for Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

It’s since got the attention of The New York Times, who praised it a great deal in 2011.

Daniels and Linney are still acting, of course, and Baumbach still directing.

As for for the younger film’s  stars, Jesse Eisenberg’s career really took off in 2010 when he starred in The Social Network. In that, he played Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.

He’s supposed to be 16 in Squid, but if you look closely enough you can see he was really in his early 20s. But the film gets away with it.

Owen Kline, who plays the youngest son, is now 30.

He just had his directorial debut released in 2022. It’s called Funny Pages and has met with strong reviews. Congrats to him!

So, that’s a wrap! As we couldn’t think of a decent way to end this review, we’re going to close with some facts about squids:

  • Squids have three hearts.
  • Squids are the fastest swimming invertebrates.
  • Squids have nine brains. 🦑

There we go. And finally… remember. Always discuss the cat.

8 comments

  1. Sounds like a couple of nice, realistically unlikable characters to follow. Daniels and Linney are both great — I recently rewatched an old movie with Daniels in it that I’ll probably be writing about soon, very different from this one. The guy is versatile for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yet another film you’ve introduced me to! Never heard of it. I like to see comedic actors sort of “grow up,” which doesn’t necessarily mean they have to stop doing comedy, since comedy is usually based on seriousness, but I do like seeing them do more dramatic roles like Will Ferrel in Everything Must Go. That move was…not what I expected but in a good way.

    Liked by 1 person

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