To me, The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding are almost the same film; they explore similar themes, have similar characters, and share the same dark sense of humor, but I enjoyed this movie much more.
From what little I’ve seen of Baumbach’s work, he tends to tell his stories piecemeal. I think this works a lot better in this film than in Margot, perhaps because it’s much lighter fare. Like Margot, the film centers around family dysfunction, but doesn’t seem to take itself as seriously.
(In a lot of ways, the central themes reminded me of Wes Anderson. I did a little Googling and found that Anderson produced The Squid and the Whale, and Baumbach co-wrote Anderson’s The Life Aquatic.)
Squid, in my opinion, also has a much better cast than Margot. (Nicole Kidman was good, of course, but Jack Black gave a really off-putting performance, and I think Baumbach’s decision to cast his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, was a mistake.) Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels give brilliant leads. Billy Baldwin – who is apparently going by William Baldwin now, perhaps in an effort to be taken more seriously – does a competent job of playing the younger son’s tennis teacher, and Anna Paquin has a real edge playing one of Daniels’ students young enough to be entranced by his intellectual bullshit.
In the behind the scenes documentary, Baumbach says, “I’m drawn to characters who are articulate and cultured and aware of psychology and art but who have immense bilnd spots in terms of their emotional life.” That’s all well and good when it works, but when it doesn’t – and for me, Margot is an example of this – the characters are exasperating to the point that you can’t relate to them. Thankfully in Squid, it works, although you can’t help but come away from it feeling Baumbach believes those kinds of characters are in some way superior, and that’s the kind of attitude that is going to get him into trouble. (Or at least allow him to make more movies like Margot.)