In a typically incendiary piece in The New York Press, critic Armond White recently called The Squid and the Whale “[one] of the year’s most acclaimed and detestable films.” White then aligned himself with A.O. Scott’s controversial New York Times essay about Sideways, which insisted that critics habitually overpraise movies that make aesthetes into heroes. White and Scott aren’t wrong, exactly. The learned middle class does dominate mainstream media, and White’s probably right to warn about “one social set’s prejudices [being] validated based on the unexamined acceptance of particular class priorities.” But what’s to be done? A critic can only react to a movie based on its artistic value, and what it says to him or her. I can’t change the fact that I’m a middle-class white guy in my mid-30s.
So I guess a warning is in order: my unequivocal passion for Noah Baumbach’s film may well be because Baumbach’s story is pretty much my own. I’m a child of divorce, just like the movie’s Walt and Frank Berkman, teenage brothers who stumble through the tumultuous first months of their parents’ separation. I was roughly the same age as Walt during the time the movie takes place—the mid-’80s—and I was a precocious teenager like Walt, pretending to be smarter and more self-possessed than I actually was. My dad was a lot like Walt’s dad, in that he was loquacious but not especially warm; and he was similarly tight with money, except when it came to spending on himself. I even listened to a lot of the same music featured on the movie’s soundtrack: Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the Risky Business soundtrack, Lou Reed’s song “Street Hassle,” The Feelies…even Bryan Adams.
But none of that warrants a rave in and of itself. (A decade ago I had a lot in common with the characters in Reality Bites, and I hated that movie.) What matters is that The Squid and the Whale is aesthetically thrilling as well as shockingly familiar. Baumbach’s earlier features Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy were dialogue-driven comedies of manners, funny and incisive, but essentially devoid of style. By contrast, The Squid and the Whale has the visual immediacy of a French New Wave film, or a verité documentary. A lot of it has been shot with hand-held cameras, on grainy film stock; the sets emphasize how New York intellectuals with good taste can still live in a kind of squalor. Baumbach structures the film like an especially punchy New Yorker short story, and though the dialogue is often side-splittingly funny, Baumbach uses it to skewer his own adolescent delusions.
It’s an open secret that Walt (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is based on Baumbach himself. Baumbach lived through the divorce of his parents, historian/film critic Georgia Brown (here named Joan, and played by Laura Linney) and novelist Jonathan Baumbach (here named Bernard, and played with creepy reserve by Jeff Daniels). And while The Squid and the Whale offers some general details about growing up smart in Brooklyn, what’s more striking is how starkly specific many of its reminiscences are, with all the vivid clarity of painful memories.
So what does it amount to? The answer, ironically, is in White’s complaint that “Baumbach fakes adolescent naïveté because he has no perspective on the arrogance and selfishness that divided his parents and the family snottiness he himself perpetuates.” White’s dead wrong here. Walt’s journey from smug surety to blind panic in The Squid and the Whale is one of raw self-awareness, and clearly that self-awareness is what inspired Baumbach to make the film. Moreover, White’s gripe about movies like The Squid and the Whale, that “their implicit values denote the backed-up sewage of the ’60s counterculture’s self-importance,” is in fact what the movie’s largely about. Narcissistic parents produce narcissistic kids, who think they’re being iconoclasts when they act like assholes.
That’s a message that White might back, if he could see past the messenger. Yes, Baumbach drops literary references and in-jokes with a dry wit that appeals to collegiate types like himself (and myself). But it’s only natural that a highly personal project like The Squid and the Whale would assume the filmmaker’s sensibility; it’s an act of real snobbery to start bestowing degrees of legitimacy on individual sensibilities. What White and A.O. Scott miss in their selective analyses is that critics who liked Sideways or The Squid and the Whale likely respond just as strongly to movies from other cultures, or ones that explore other classes—much more so than “the public” that White champions, who are usually busy watching movies about rich folks who act like slobs. In the end, The Squid and the Whale has the virtues of all great art, in that it makes the personal universal. I dare say that the core of its story—the way parents shape and misshape their kids—is relevant to pretty much everybody on Earth.