Monday, January 02, 2006


Yesterday I went to see "The Squid and the Whale". What an amazing movie. Jeff Daniels plays a character very much like my own father. The film covers the divorce of a family. The parents are both writers with advanced degrees in literature. The two boys are dealing with adolescence as well as the breakdown of the family. Sounds like a boring movie, but, in fact, there are parts of great humor and intense pain. Mostly there are spot-on characterizations of people and the massive disappointment we feel as children when we discover our parents are human and make tons of mistakes.

Jeff Daniels plays the father and he is amazingly self-absorbed. He is a successful writer whose current writing is being rejected. He is pompous, spouting opinions on anything and everything. He is concerned entirely with himself and his view of the world, which is both cynical and self-aggrandizing.

The oldest son has coped by turning himself into the adoring audience for his father. The son asks questions about culture, allowing his father to spout his cynical pronouncements. The son then memorizes the answers and spouts them back in an attempt at conversation. The youngest son is less imprinted, less able to cope and therefore harder hit by the problems that arise.

The mother is a writer who is just coming into success, something that is clearly a major problem for the father. She seems more interested in the lives of her children than their father, but, to their detriment, she chooses to have affairs with people she has met through her children including a school psychologist and her son's tennis teacher.

The family lives in a comfortable brownstone in Brooklyn. When the break-up happens, the father moves into a decrepit apartment "across the park". The walls are splotched with holes, the furniture is minimal. The father apparently steals one of those chair/arm desk pieces from school and proudly presents it, but fails to notice that it is for left-handers and his kids are right-handed. He proudly proclaims he has a ping-pong table, but he is the only one interested in playing the game. Again, with the self-obsession on Daddy's part. Over time, he demands to keep "his nights" with the kids and makes it a competition between himself and the mother, even though he does little for the kids themselves.

To a large extent, the movie does a great job of portraying the pompous intellectual caricature we've all heard about. Mostly, he is just a pathetic father. Years ago, I pegged my father fairly well by saying he was a man who always wanted offspring but never wanted children. I see the same in the Daniels character. He has nothing to give to anyone around him, especially his children who have no choice but to need and want more than they can possibly receive from him.

I'm not sure the break-up of the marriage is hurting or helping this family, since it was already so geared away from the needs of the children and so wrapped around the mighty ego of the father. The mother's attentions are too unfocused to compensate for that hole in their life and the sons are in for some painful and embarrassing experiences while they struggle to learn how to cope with life's issues without any support from the people whose job it is to help them.

In the last moments of the movie, the father has suffered an accident and tells his son how much he will need him around more to see to the father's needs. In a hopeful moment, the boy pulls his hand out of the grasp of his father and makes his way out of the hospital, preparing to deal with his demons on his own. I like the movie because it portrays what can happen when a man is allowed to be spoiled and self-absorbed and makes the grave mistake of having children he can't care for.

In the past year there was a study I found fascinating and logical. People who are incompetent at their jobs are also incompetent in judging how good they are at their jobs. This father is positive he is a good father, fighting for his children, although he is no help to them at all. There is a terrific scene when he tells his wife how hard he tried in the last year of their marriage. "Remember, I made hamburgers once!" It doesn't help matters that the wife, and we, find the statement to be hilarious. There's just no way this guy will ever "get it."


I took a half hour break after "The Squid and the Whale" and then saw "The Family Stone." What a shock to the system, this film was. The commercials emphasized the humor in the movie, but it was fundamentally not funny. Instead, it tugged at our heartstrings, taking every opportunity to wring sentimentality out of a not very interesting situation. The plot was stupid, the people were mean-spirited, the resolution was inauthentic and the ending was tacked on. It was definitely a major waste of my time. More than that, it was mean spirited and amazingly cynical. Again, we have a disgusting "liberal" family who somehow are unable to be tolerate anyone outside their insular clan. Kind of the opposite of the concept of "liberal" if you ask me.

Spoiler ahead! This time, the mother was the self-absorbed whiner whose picture is in the dictionary next to the term "inappropriate behavior." But, alas, she's dying of cancer, so we must feel sympathy for her. Honestly, I say good riddance, bitch.

Save your money.