Redemption Song

squid.jpgThe Life Aquatic was a disappointment to a lot of Wes Anderson fans. But, with his record, including Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, one good film could put him back in everyone's good graces. For co-writer Noah Baumbach, however, life was a little less certain. His films until then had been well received but not particularly career making. And if Anderson's rabid fans wanted a scapegoat for why Anderson swung and missed this time out, they could point to his three previous triumphs, all co-scripted with actor Owen Wilson, as prima facie evidence that Baumbach was the weak link this time.

His one get out of jail card would have to be his baby: The Squid and the Whale (Sony Pictures DVD), a semi-autobiographical film as well as directorial debut. Released last year, it tells the story of a young man and his brother becoming reluctant participants and witnesses to the demise of their parents' union. With the literary careers of their father and mother taking opposite trajectories, it is as if A Star is Born was being told from the perspective of the older child. And while it may not be the work that jumpstarts Baumbach's career, it may at least make people reassess Anderson's culpability in Aquatic.

The one strength this film has to recommend - other than the acting - is that it throws away the playbook Hollywood typically reserves for the Family Drama. It's not set during a family get-together on Thanksgiving. There's no Oscar-ready speech to jerk the tears. There's no parent with a drinking problem. And there's no crazy aunt or uncle for comic relief. These are some of the more normal characters you will find in a film. At times, you almost feel you're in the room with them, and the anger and the humiliations they experience are so real as to be palpable.

But it is that catalogue of personal humiliation that also, strangely enough, forms the weakest element of this film. Taken individually, the scenes are striking. Together, however, they are such a relentless cavalcade of pain, misery and humiliation that it becomes a sort of a game of one-upmanship, as if the film with each new scene is saying: "Oh, you thought THAT was bad. Well, wait until you see THIS." And that avalanche buries any lighter moments. When the film rushes for the exits during the last 10 minutes, you should complain but you don't.

The acting, though, is stout. Jeff Daniels makes the father difficult to condemn and Laura Linney makes the mother difficult to embrace even though on both cases you know you should. And as Walt, the older child, Jesse Eisenberg is fun to watch, playing a son who isn't precocious but nevertheless tries to play the part for dad's sake. Even Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) as the younger son, Frank, nails his role with aplomb. He has a tougher assignment than Eisenberg: the tough, foul-mouthed kid who is in danger of letting his baser, sexual instincts turn him into a monster. And to Baumbach's credit, what he gets right is that even though each son blames a different parent for the break-up, they never display any personal animosity toward each other. The moments between the two actors are short but some of the most sincere, as well. Anna Paquin and William Baldwin do try as the paramours of the separated parents, but their roles are thinly sketched and they have very little to work with.

The DVD has three extras. The first is the typically unenlightening Behind the Scenes documentary that is de rigueur for DVDs nowadays. The second is a 52-minute commentary by Baumbach, who starts off on the wrong foot by informing the viewer that if he had anything else to say it would have been in the film. More interesting is a Q&A with film critic Philip Lopate during a promotional tour to support the film. There aren't many surprising questions or answers, though the occasional morsel does slip out. Baumbach relates one tale where he could not secure the rights to use a poster of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up in the film without paying a hefty fee. Thwarted, he says, he contacts another company that says he may use of any or their posters, and while thumbing thorough their catalogue stumbles across an even better selection: Jean Eustache's The Mother and The Whore. - John Flowers

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Mr. Flowers is a man with a few letters - from his work at Time Magazine to his very dedicated dedication to pursuing his literary pursuits on his very serious blog.

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