Squid and the Whale, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/24/05 16:43:29

"Winner of the 2005 'Most Vaguely Dirty Title' award."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

By now, that having one's parents get divorced is no fun whatsoever is not really a message that needs getting out; it's a fact of life that most people are at least aware of second-hand. Even in the best-case scenario, where everyone eventually recognizes that it was for the best and the parents remain civil or even friendly, it's a thoroughly trying experience.

The Squid and the Whale does not chronicle a best-case scenario.

Because Noah Baumbach's film is semi-autobiographical, it takes place in 1980s Brooklyn, but it could be set in any relatively contemporary setting with minor changes: Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) are just realizing that their marriage is over, although it's probably been clear to outsiders for a while. Both are writers, though Bernard's star is falling while Joan is newly successful. It doesn't take long for their kids to start choosing sides, with older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) tending toward his snobbish father and middle-schooler Frank (Owen Kline) favoring his earthier mother. Tensions increase when Joan takes up with Frank's tennis coach (William Baldwin) and one of Bernard's college students (Anna Paquin) rents his spare room.

Daniels delivers a vicious skewering of the New York Intellectual archetype, delivering his lines in a dry monotone, belittling almost by reflex. It's easy to see why Walt idolizes his father; he seems sophisticated and like something to aspire to, even if his words are actually damaging. Indeed, even the audience is initially seduced by him, as he is what most would initially consider the wounded party in the Berkmans' divorce (Joan had the affair), even if our first glimpse of him isn't particularly favorable. He doesn't vary his performance much, so the effect is cumulative, slowly chipping away at our sympathy until it starts to fall apart in large chunks.

Eisenberg does quite the fine "like father, like son" performance, mimicking Daniels's manner of speech and behavior but occasionally showing signs of how Walt is not his his father, and how it would be a mistake for him to try too hard to emulate Bernard. Kline, meanwhile, plays Frank as far less pretentious and more honest with himself, but also chillingly cold when he starts to act out. Linney is believably pained as Joan without making the character pathetic or even pitiable - we like her more than Bernard, but she's not perfect. She's a mom, basically, projecting the ability to handle situations because she must. Baldwin delivers a somewhat exaggerated "dim, but functional" vibe, while Paquin is similarly a bit more overtly sexual and admiring than she perhaps needs to be (but that's perhaps the point, that the recently divorced will seek out people who are opposite of their former mates and then some). Halley Feiffer is rather charming as Walt's new girlfriend, well-adjusted despite her brushes with Walt and his father.

Pieces of this movie will be familiar to anyone whose family has gone through a divorce, not so much actual events as the friction that seems to come out of nowhere (but really doesn't) and escalates far more than could be reasonably expected. That's just part of the movie, though; what keeps it from being completely lumped in with similarly-themed memoirs is the peculiarity of the characters. Baumbach collaborated with Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic (Anderson serves as a producer here), and these characters are intelligent but screwed up in a similar way, while also being very funny. Plenty of laughs are mined from Bernard's seeming obliviousness to normal human behavior, for instance, although Baumbach knows where to draw lines - he keeps the behavior that is strange but okay to laugh at separate from the behavior which is strange and outright disturbing.

Indeed, that's what makes this movie successful - it recognizes how closely connected the comic and the tragic are, and does a fine job of mixing them.

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