Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely hind, a graceful doe.
Let her affection fill you at all times with delight, be infatuated always with her love.
Proverbs 5:18-19 Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Set in the comfortable Park Slope section of Brooklyn in 1986, director/writer Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film rises far above the hundreds of other Hollywood depictions of the effects of a divorce upon the children. We know in the very first scene that the 17-year marriage of Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) must be in trouble because of Bernard’s advice to his son. The family is playing a foursome game of tennis, 16 year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) on his father’s side, and 12 year-old Frank (Owen Kline) on his mother’s, this pairing up foreshadowing what is to come. It is Walt’s serve, and his father, telling him of Joan’s weak side, says to hit the ball there. Beginning at this point, we see that Bernard, caring more about winning and other aspects of his life than for his wife, will never be able to heed the advice of the writers of Proverbs or of Philippians.
Bernard is a professor of literature, and his first novel was well received by the critics, so much so that he utters various judgments upon books and people as if his were the last word. He even includes himself in the company of Kafka. Walt absorbs his father’s every word, such as that The Tale of Two Cities is “minor Dickens,” opinions which the boy passes along as his own. Maybe it is his being so full of himself that Bernard has not been able to follow up the first novel with anything else. Nor does it help his ego when Joan’s novel is well received, and she is invited to contribute to the New Yorker.
When Bernard calls a family council to announce that he and Joan are getting a divorce, the boys are taken aback, Bernard thinks he has everything sorted out, with his moving out to a lesser house across the park, and the two parents sharing custody of the boys according to an agreed upon cycle of days. He is taken aback when one of the boys asks, “What about the cat?” What ensues after this is a mixture of the tragic, the comical, and a touch of the absurd.
The boys take sides, Walt moving in with his father when he learns that his mother had engaged in several affairs when she could no longer put up with the pompous ways of her arrogant husband. The younger Frank vigorously defends their mother. Soon the behavior of the boys is reflecting the turmoil of their domestic life. To call attention to himself Walt sings a song in the high school talent show that he claims to have written, but is soon revealed to be lifted from Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.” He also gets off to a bad start with a girl by following his father’s chauvinistic advice and by mouthing his father’s words about Dickens and Kafka. Meanwhile Frank has entered into the stage of masturbation, but goes far beyond most kids his age, especially getting into trouble when his fluid is found on library books. (Yes, this is not a film for the whole family!)
There is more, much more to the story, including each parent’s choice of another partner. (Plus a spoiler at the end of this paragraph, so be forewarned.) The new love interests also will affect the boys, and this really is what the film is about, how the children of divorce survive the trauma and manage to move beyond the plight of being used by warring parents to wound the other. As a child of such a divorce, I found that every scene in the film rings true, sometimes painfully so. And yet there is humor also in the situation, sometimes to the point of absurdity. For Walt a measure of understanding comes when he enters the Museum of Natural History and sees the eye-catching display of a giant squid locked in unending conflict with a whale.
(This also might contain spoilers, especially Question 4.)
1) Are you drawn to the side of one of the parents? Or upset by them both? How would Bernard be difficult to live with? The apostle Paul continues his advice to the Philippians by pointing to Christ as the example of one who “emptied” himself on behalf of the human race: do you see at any point in the film Bernard putting the needs of others before his own? Do you think that he is capapble of “emptying” himself for others?
2) How do you think Walt will ever be able to grow beyond parroting his father concerning books and people?
3) Do you see any sign of faith or spirituality in the Berkman family? How might this have made a difference in the marriage? What families do you know like this?
4) How do you think the squid and the whale display helps Walt deal with his parents? Which do you believe is the mother, and which the father? How do the parents seem to be locked into a cycle of mutual hostility, unable to move on? How could a touch of forgiveness help?
5) If your parents were divorced when you were young, how did you deal with or come to terms with the situation? Did you pray and bargain with God (as I did) to bring them back together? Or scheme to reconcile them, as in Parent Trap? How can you see God at work in such traumas as divorces where children are involved?