Relationship things.... In The Squid and the Whale, it's parents and children, husband and wife, brother and brother, in the main, but supplementarily wife and lover, male professor and female student, older boy and new girlfriend, among others. The uncommon specificity as to time and place and cultural milieu -- 1986, Brooklyn, the bourgeois intelligentsia -- is to some extent a limiting factor but more so an animating factor. These people live and breathe. (Or, in view of the time, lived and breathed.) The parents, the husband and wife, are respectively a has-been "serious" novelist, now a musty academic, and a soon-to-be first novelist, presently excerpted in The New Yorker, and to make matters worse the wife's wing-spreading encompasses an occasional affair. When the couple try a joint-custody separation, with the parsimonious man of the house moving out to "elegant" new digs of patched walls and shabby furnishings and a general air of dilapidation, the older boy sides with his aggrieved father, whom he lionizes without ever having read any of his books ("Best Wishes," the author inscribes over his autograph on the flyleaf of one of them, and in parentheses, "Dad"), and from whom he takes all of his own opinions ("It's minor Dickens," at the breakfast table, is sufficient to save him the bother of actually reading A Tale of Two Cities for class), while the younger boy, barely into puberty, sides with his mother (despite declaring her "ugly" to her flabbergasted face), taking as his male role model his laid-back tennis coach ("Hey, my brother!"), and taking from his father only his proclivity for cussing under pressure ("Suck my dick, assman," after losing to his dog-eat-dog dad at ping-pong).
Although well played by the sagely bearded Jeff Daniels, with his outer show of cultivation and his undertow of savagery, the character of the father is seen as a bit of a caricature, a slightly grotesque automaton of pat phrases ("[Elmore] Leonard is the fillet of the crime genre," and yet, "It's not serious"), stock kudos ("dense," "risky"), vented frustration and hostility. And although likewise well played by the cosmetic-free Laura Linney, the mother is seen more distantly, less distinctly. But the characters of the children are unqualified successes, especially the older one, whose age, by no mere coincidence, closely matches that of writer-director Noah Baumbach at that same period. The hunched shoulders, the sniffy nose, the sleepy eyes, the shrugging speech of Jesse Eisenberg capture perfectly the role-playing pretentiousness of the young, and the damning details of intellectual laziness all throughout the script complete the portrait. Having touted Kafka's Metamorphosis as a masterpiece to his potential girlfriend, without of course having read it himself, he is unable to come up with much discussion ("It's very Kafka-esque") after she takes his recommendation. He is no less at sea when he attempts to show off his powers of discrimination on the personal level: "I wish," he tells the girl in dead earnest, "you didn't have so many freckles on your face." And his rationale for plagiarism, when caught at a school talent show passing off a Pink Floyd number as his own composition, is a classic: "I felt like I could have written it." The younger brother, played under a cloud of moroseness (with passing squalls) by Owen Kline, registers as a total original (not least in his highly original uses for his sudden production of semen), a self-proclaimed philistine, after careful consideration of Dad's disdainful definition ("Someone who doesn't care about books or interesting films"), and no less pretentious, in his inverted snobbery and militant profanity, than his faux-cultured older brother. This painfully funny film, in case it hasn't been made clear, is a comedy of character, a human comedy. And while the filmmaking itself is nothing special, the not too jiggly hand-held camera does achieve, in its positioning and its movement, a sort of natural rapport with the humans, an easy congeniality, a Frenchified nonchalance.
In Shopgirl, directed by Anand Tucker, it's the classic romantic triangle, older man, younger woman, young man. The older man is the immaculately groomed, impeccably tailored Steve "Suave" Martin (author of the original novella as well as its adapter to the screen), who glides up to the glove counter at Saks, follows the salesgirl's advice on a purchase, then sends it to her home address as a gift along with a dinner invitation, entering her world almost as a fairy godfather to show her a life of luxury whenever he's in town on business, and to turn her head from the unkempt, maladroit young man, the very hairy Jason Schwartzman, who always needs to borrow a couple of dollars on a date. The latter spends most of the movie as a roadie on tour with a rock band, transforming himself through books-on-tape to the point where he could pass at the end as a bargain-basement gigolo. Claire Danes, the woman in the middle, puts a lot of reacting into her acting, a wide-eyed Goldilocks who approaches any bowl of porridge with utmost caution and suspicion, and tastes it with total concentration. The relationships manifest some amusingly out-of-step interactions and offbeat timings, but this slender, mannerly, neat-and-tidy little movie, ushered along by a minimalist trancelike musical score, is more a meditation than a comedy, or a romance, with a sadder-but-wiser moral delivered oddly in third-person voice-over by Martin, whose aura of detachment at last edges up to clinical dissociation.
In Prime, it's a different kind of triangle, older woman, younger man, and older woman's therapist cum younger man's mother. The therapist/ mother, a bespectacled, beanbaggy Meryl Streep, is the only one of the three who sees the whole picture, who knows that her twenty-three-year-old son, Bryan Greenberg, a younger and tranquilized Treat Williams, has become romantically involved with her divorced thirty-seven-year-old client, Uma Thurman. (Quite a long-shot coincidence even in a town the size of Albany, never mind New York City. Still a longer shot: they meet in the queue of an Antonioni bill.) The therapist herself has been a step slow to catch on, since her client at first fudges the age of the younger man as twenty-seven, while her son fudges the age of the older woman as also twenty-seven. The truth, once it dawns, puts the therapist in a ticklish position, wanting to maintain a supportive professional relationship with her client, while not wanting her son to throw himself away on a clock-ticking shiksa. Somehow the tickles never reach the spectator. Streep, working with a muted New York accent, has plenty of good ideas about the demeanor, the posture, the wardrobe of an East Side psychologist, and she has a wealth of facial expression with which to compensate for the self-conscious cuteness, the unnaturalness, the flatness of the dialogue (written by Ben Younger, who also directed). Even were the dialogue snappier, the busyness, the fussiness, of Streep's performance would be sure to play hell with any rhythm. Whenever she's off screen, however, and hers is the smallest of the three leading roles, you yearn for someone to play a little hell.
In The Weather Man, it's, well, pretty much just the weather man and the weather man. This ungifted Chicago TV personality ("My job's very easy, two hours a day, basically reading prompts"), accustomed to getting pelted on the street with fast-food items thrown by passing motorists, has a number of private-life burdens and aggravations: a Pulitzer Prize-winning father dying of lymphoma before the fortyish son has a chance to impress him (the mother, though alive and well, scarcely merits a glance); an ex-wife who has already found herself a new man; a teenage son in rehab, with a homosexual predator for his drug counselor; and an overweight daughter whose form-fitting clothes in the crotch area have earned her the nickname of "Camel-Toe" (an educational montage illustrates the phenomenon). But it's significant that the movie opens with our mopey solipsist gazing at himself in the mirror, and significant, too, that it tells so much of its story in the form of his first-person narration. Given that the person is Nicolas Cage, and given that Lord of War was less than two months ago, it seems we've spent a lot of time lately listening to Nicolas Cage tell tales. One stream-of-consciousness passage, not really narration but interior monologue, almost makes the whole thing worthwhile: a flashback to the time he was sent to the deli to pick up some tartar sauce with a to-go order. He starts out with a clear focus on his assignment ("Tartar sauce, tartar sauce, tartar sauce, tartar sauce..."), but the sight of a shapely bottom in a pair of blue jeans at the crosswalk sets him off on a free-associative riff that takes his mind a long way from a condiment. Cage, distancing himself from his action-hero persona, plays the part as a classic sadsack with glimmers of existentialist awareness, and he never remotely looks like someone who would have caught the eye of the network for a million-dollar job on Bryant Gumbel's morning show. His director, Gore Verbinski, ensures he won't look like that with an overcast image that appears to encase him in tinted or frosted glass.
All these relationships, and don't forget those of An Unfinished Life, Proof, In Her Shoes, Elizabethtown, and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, signal one thing above all. No, not an evolutionary new maturity in the movie business, but only the annual autumn turn into the last lap of the Oscar race.