Squid, Whale, Meet Margot At The Wedding

From a professional standpoint I’m more interested in directors than actors, and therefore it won’t necessarily take more than one good movie for me to strike a loyal relationship to a film-maker. Thus, when I first saw Gregg Araki‘s Mysterious Skin back in 2004, I immediately began hunting down his other films. However uneven, Nowhere (1997) was a truly fascinating mess, but by investing my trust in his abilities in this way, I also set myself up for an unpleasant landing should it be that he was unable to live up to my unreasonably high expectations. Still, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the intense pain I experienced when I watched his stoner comedy Smiley Face last year. In the early 2000’s Dude, Where’s My Car forever ruined my relationship with this (sub-) genre, but still my trust in Araki’s artistic judgement made me overlook the obvious signs that I would hate the film; Anna Farris; stoner comedy; the terrible tagline (“High. How are you?“). I was terribly wrong, of course, and I hated it even more just because I’d expected more from an obviously talented guy like Gregg Araki.

My point then, is that I haven’t necessarily learned anything from this painful experience, and that I don’t even want to. Sure, I no longer believe Araki to be invincible, but I’ll still give him a chance to win me back. His voice as a film maker and an artist is so distinct and with such a huge potential that it would be way premature of me to write him off now. In a weird way, I’m now even more interested in where his career will go next than I would have been if Smiley Face had been even remotely more to my liking. My problem with Smiley Face mainly is that I think it failed in a fairly conventional way, and I don’t want Gregg Araki to make conventional movies. His job should’ve been to turn the whole genre on its head, if only to see what came out it. In the end, I know that this movie will find its place in his total production, and hopefully, he will be able to improve his game next time around. I didn’t abandon Richard Linklater after School Of Rock, and I’m glad I didn’t, because he then went on to do Before Sunset. Likewise, I could easily have decided I’d had it with Danish star director Thomas Vinterberg (whose international breakthrough, the dark comedy The Celebration, you should watch immediately) after his barely watchable first English-language film It’s All About Love (2003), but then I would have missed the visual fireworks of Dear Wendy, the slightly anti-American gun-fetishizing satire he directed from a script by fellow Dane Lars von Trier.

And this, my patient reader, is where I planned for this blog to start, until I decided to write a sort of backstory to my conflicted feelings toward Noah Baumbach’s Margot At The Wedding (2007). You see, Baumbach too is one of those directors who made such a profound first impression on me that I blindly trusted his talent to carry the day. Every time I revisit The Squid and the Whale (2005), I discover something new about this this painfully funny middle class satire and divorce movie, brilliantly played down to even the smallest supporting role by Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin and Anna Paquin. Much like Ang Lee in The Ice Storm or Sam Mendes in American Beauty, Baumbauch is able to extract some big but guilty laughs by simply observing the pathetic self pity with which the bruised egos of Bernard (Daniels) and Joan (Linney) fight their turf wars over the hearts and minds of their two sons Walt (Eisenberg) and Frank (Kline). The bitterness is written into their every interaction even though they fight bravely to get along for their children, and we half expect (hope for?) Baumbach to back off at any time, simply because we’re neither used to nor comfortable with watching people humiliate themselves like this.

Among many others things (a stinging social satire on the cultural elite etc.), The Squid and the Whale is a movie about shame, self-assertion and the way kids are often manipulated into fighting battles on their parents’ behalf. In one particularly revealing yet painfully funny scene, the older son, Walt, explains to Frank that he should not tell his friends about their parents divorce because he’s afraid of how that might make them look, only to discover that Frank has already told it to a couple of his friends. On a base level, Walt’s reaction may seem simply protective, but at the same time it also serves to show how his way of thinking more than any other is formed by that of his father. Instead of openly admitting to each other how hard the the divorce is to them, they pick sides between their parents, with Frank defending Joan’s every move just as vigorously as Walt defends Bernard. Down to how they speak to other people, what they speak about and how they speak about it, Baumbach’s piercing dialogues mercilessly expose how family ties sometimes can make even the smallest mistakes seem inexcusable (here, I’m not talking about cheating on your husband).

Though the rivalry between sisters Margot and Pauline in Margot At The Wedding contains some moments of the same tensions, it’s doesn’t even come close to feeling as curious, probing, moving or funny as Squid. The cause of their strained relationship remains somewhat unclear, and since I suspect that the whole story is best viewed trough that lens, I’m having trouble understanding, and more importantly, caring about their sometimes erratic behavior. I guess I said something similar about The Mudge Boy a while back, but I only harp on about how these characters are underdeveloped because I really wanted them to work better. Overdeveloped characters often become airless and predictable, but underdevelopment can be just as bad, because we start viewing them in the light of those few things and traits about them, instead of considering them truly believable, engaging peopele.

As is often a problem when I’m unable to form an emotional relationship with the main characters, that frustration trickles down to even the supporting roles, and I start to see them through the same lens as I saw Margot and Pauline. Take Malcolm (Jack Black), the man Pauline is supposed to marry. He suffers from the fact that I don’t really care about his future wife, so why should I care about him? I also feel that Jack Black is miscast in this role. On paper, his charisma might have made him seem like a natural fit to play a chronically depressed and insecure man, but in my opinion he’s never able to transcend the somewhat annoying (and mainly comic) persona he has built in his previous movies. I can’t help but feel that Black would have played a parody of Malcolm pretty much the same way. It’s no compliment to Black, and a huge problem for the movie.

This doesn’t mean I will give up on Noah Baumbach. He still has the potential to be a famed chronicler of the anxieties of the American middle class. Still, it’s disheartening to see that he just took several steps away from that goal.

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3 Responses to Squid, Whale, Meet Margot At The Wedding

  1. It’s interesting that you mention “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding” on the same post because, to me, they share the same problems. 1) I didn’t care much about the main characters because they are way too self-loathing and selfish and 2) Both are too depressing and I felt like in the end the characters didn’t really learn anything from their experiences.

    You wrote that TSatW has funny parts–which I agree with–but I probably only laughed about twice of three times throughout the whole movie. Most of the time, I felt VERY sorry for the characters. To me, if a “depressing” movie doesn’t have some sort of light (no matter how small) at the end or near the end of the tunnel, the journey seems a bit pointless. To me, that “light” is required for emotional/mental growth.

    When I read, “The Squid and the Whale is a movie about shame, self-assertion and the way kids are often manipulated into fighting battles on their parents’ behalf,” I thought that was a strong observation because I didn’t think of it that way. I guess it’s not what I focused on. Instead, since I felt like each character is a bit underdeveloped (especially the kids in TSatW), it was hard for me to get to that conclusion. Instead, I saw their behaviors as simply acting out/not knowing how to deal with their parents’ divorce.

    I love that you mention MatW and TSatW side-by-side. You make me wanna see them again and maybe watch them in a different perspective! =]

  2. P.S.: “Smiley Face” is sooo dumb (but I liked it, strangely enough), but Anna Faris is so cute and I can’t help but root for her as an actress. I see a lot of guy actors that play stoner/stupid type of roles but not a lot of women so I have to give her credit for that.

    I agree 100% that Gregg Araki can do so much better than SF. If he can tell a challenging story like “Mysterious Skin” and succeed at it, it’s hard for me to believe that he doesn’t have anything special despite SF. I guess we’ll just have to see what he comes up with next.

  3. queerlefty says:

    Thanks a lot for your comments, they made me look at the films in a different light as well.

    While I understand what you mean when you call the TSatW characters ‘selfish’ and ‘self-loathing’, I’m not sure it does them justice. Because I see this film as being more about how a divorce impact the kids, than a film about their parents per se, I generally don’t think of Frank’s or Walt’s character arcs as underdeveloped. Sure, Frank’s actions and the motivations behind them can seem vague at times, but I still feel that they something profound about the insecurities and the need for continuity and attention that I imagine kids feel in these situations.

    Walt is more sharply written, though, and that’s also why I think he works better dramatically. He loyalty to his father is seemingly bottomless, but Eisenberg does a an absolutely job showing how increasingly hard it is for him to justify it, because it could mean rethinking his entire worldview. As viewers we don’t share Walt’s genetic obligation to accept Bernard with all his flaws, which makes it very uncomfortable for us to watch Walt come to realize what we expected all along.

    That said, let me try to put in a word for Bernard and Joan, too. They’re both selfish, sure, but I suspect that they come across as more so than they really are. The problem is that their respective (sense of?) of failure or loss of personal pride inhibits them from appreciating the small concilliatory signs they send out (like when Joan suggests that they sit together for Walt’s talent competition), and they they don’t see what their behavior is doing to the kids. Whether these irregular gestures towards parental unity make them more likable or not is an open question, but tom me at least it makes them seem (even) more fallible, and thus more human.

    Also, I’m not sure I agree that they don’t seem to learn anything from their experiences. One thing is I’m sure that’s the point (or even if it should be), but even so, at least I think the experience was rather cathartic for Walt. After repeated viewings, I admit I’m still not quite sure exactly what it’s supposed to symbolize, but in a strange way, I still felt it was some sort of cloture, at least partially.

    That’s also part of the reason why I’m don’t consider this movie to be quite as gloomy as I sense you do. The humor might seem cynical at times, but I never felt it was cheap. Sure, Walt is the butt of several jokes, but their usually meant to show how he has internalized his father’s behavior and expectations. As a result, I’d consider most of the humor as some sort of satire, if humorous at all. This might let it off the hook as gloomy, but it at least it doesn’t seem so bad. And the philistine joke always has me laughing.

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