Beyond Vassar

Now Showing

By Daniel Steckenberg ’06

The Squid and the Whale is that rare film that makes you uncomfortable while you’re watching it, but comforted when you leave the theater. The film by Noah Baumbach ’91, about divorce and its aftershocks, takes you places where few other films will go.

Baumbach’s camera hovers over the characters’ shoulders while they eat their breakfast and seems to have a seat of its own at the dinner table. Members of the fictitious Berkman family go to the bathroom, masturbate, and get caught cheating onscreen; neither they nor we are spared any embarrassment. In a sense we are not just watching the Berkmans—we are a member of their family.

The film is anchored by strong performances from Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels (Joan and Bernard Berkman, respectively) as the divorcees. Daniels has created a character that you just can’t bring yourself to dislike as much as you probably should. Suffice it to say that any male who has ever dabbled in pretension will recognize a bit of themselves in Bernard. The kids, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, also perform well. Eisenberg is a perfect miniature Bernard—both a horrific and strangely endearing sight. For all their faults, or perhaps because of them, the Berkmans never become a burden to us, and as the film continues we find ourselves liking them and hoping they find a way to be happy. In the end, there is less a resolution than the sense that life will go on—a more realistic and, in some ways, affirming ending than most films these days.

This is Noah Baumbach’s fourth turn as a director. His first, Kicking and Screaming, is about recent college graduates and contains some familiar moments for members of the Vassar community. But his best-known work may be co-writing the screenplay for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Wes Anderson’s 2004 film. The Squid and the Whale is produced by Anderson, and fans of his work will see his influence in a few places, but Baumbach strikes a visual style all his own. He is a filmmaker to watch, and all the more so because of his Vassar connection.