Problem is, Bernard Berkman -- a once-famous writer and academic -- is most likely not a genius. Though he would say that his continual reuse of words like "elegant," "interesting" and "philistine" is some sort of stylistic device, it suggests to us that Bernard's command of the language is fading or, perhaps, wasn't that powerful in the first place. His old books are rarely read; his new book is hopelessly convoluted; most of his students think he's a joke. Rather than confront these shortcomings, he projects them onto his wife and children.
The way writer/director Noah Baumbach uses Bernard to lampoon intellectualism as a pursuit not of knowledge or understanding, but of a certain status in life (large vocabularies; summers off; senseless, tawdry hauteur; corduroy blazers) is often unbearably funny. Like all the humor in the film, though, it's tempered with the realization that the jokes cut on deep emotional traumas.
Of the four Berkmans, only young Frank has a clear idea of who he is as a person. Responding to Bernard's definition of intellectual, Frank replies, "Then I'm a philistine." "No, you're interested in books and things," Berkman says flatly. "No," says Frank, "I'm a philistine." Frank also sees more clearly into his parent's natures and the nature of their relationship than they themselves do. That degree of insight, coupled with a lack of how to cope with it, makes him a whirlwind of emotion and self-destructive behavior.
Some of the film's funniest moments are in the juxtaposition of Frank and his much older brother Walt (Owen Kline). Once, while discussing the problem of their parents, Frank drinks beer with his shirt off while Walt looks on sheepishly. Frank also to explores his sexuality in ways that Walt's obviously (judging by his stammering unease around all subjects sex-oriented) never considered. It's funny until you reflect on the consequences and ramifications of these behaviors -- which are never shown because they haven't yet surfaced and won't for years.
Walt, in his thoughtless posturing and blatant plagiarism, hints mightily at what a young Bernard might have been like (calling The Metamorphosis "very Kafka-esque"). He is both the symbol of Bernard's failure and the mouthpiece through which Bernard projects that failure onto his estranged wife Joan (Laura Linney), who is, herself, highly imperfect, having had several affairs. An excellent (perhaps better) writer in her own right, her late success feeds Bernard's insecurity. And rather than trying to downplay that, she revels in it.
Despite being the cause of such turmoil, it's hard to hate Bernard. He's so woefully na & iuml;ve about so many things -- most of all, himself as a person -- that it's obvious his academic bluster (and perfectly ratty beard and studiously threadbare professorial garb) is a huge front for some serious image and self-confidence problems. He doesn't like himself and thus, like so many others have done, he takes it out on the people he loves.
Baumbach's sympathetic lens has prompted criticisms that it ends abruptly and without real resolution. This is, however, a film about divorce: It should probably be more abrupt, with less resolution and murkier characterizations. But I don't think anyone is ready for a film that real.
The Squid and the Whale (Rated: R) plays at the Panida in Sandpoint on Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 9-11, at 7:30 pm.