Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels, "Good Night, and Good Luck") is a college writing professor peering down from a once noteworthy literary standing. His wife Joan's (Laura Linney, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose") fledgling success as a writer is clearly grating at him. When his aggression crosses the line one last time, Bernard and Joan announce to their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, "Roger Dodger," "The Village") and Frank (Owen Kline, "The Anniversary Party"), that they are separating. Walt, long under dad’s sway, will go through a metamorphosis as his eyes are opened to Bernard's nature. Only then is he able to confront the Museum of Natural History exhibit he anxiously equates with his parents, "The Squid and the Whale."
After the one-sided and romanticized child's eye view of parents that was "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio," "The Squid and the Whale" comes blasting in like a gale from a hot furnace. Writer/director Baumbach ("Kicking and Screaming," "Mr. Jealousy") uses his own teenaged confusion coming of age under the guardianship of two flawed parents (albeit heavily weighed against one) and Jesse Eisenberg as his alter ego delivers a masterfully mature performance amidst an excellent ensemble.
Baumbach immediately puts us in the no man's land trenches defined by the tennis net separating Berkman family doubles play. Dad and Walt play aggressively against mom and Frank, looking for weaknesses, then going in for the kill. Joan's worn down by the pelting of Bernie's tennis balls as well as his verbal critiques of her writing. He's also a negative influence on Walt, who disregards literary homework assignments that Bernie disdains ("A Tale of Two Cities" is minor Dickens...), and condescends just like dad in conversations with Sophie (Halley Feiffer, "You Can Count on Me"), the nice girl who's interested in him at school. Dad moves out, going to a cheaper neighborhood (Brooklyn's Park Slope starting to get pricey in 1986), and the boys are shuttled back and forth along with the family cat. Younger brother Frank begins acting out sexually, hitting the liquor cabinet and bonding with tennis pro Ivan (William Baldwin, "Sliver," in fine fettle with a quirky characterization here) who dad's declared a philistine and mom's begun an affair with. Bernie attempts to strengthen his ego by turning Walt even further away from his mother by telling him about the affairs she began to have five years earlier and by suggesting that his sexually provocative student Lili (Anna Paquin, "25th Hour," "X2") board in his extra bedroom. It's not until Walt's sent to a school shrink for having claimed authorship of Pink Floyd's "Hey You" during a school talent show that he has the epiphany that loosens Bernard's choke hold over the family's dynamics.
"The Squid and the Whale" was the unprecedented winner of both the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and Director's Award at 2005's Sundance Film Festival. Baumbach's screenplay is a painfully probing drama, not without comedic elements. Writing it must have been like giving oneself a root canal on laughing gas. He's able to determine all the little things that make a family and break down a marriage The brilliant cast do him proud as well. Eisenberg has the furrowed intensity that bespeaks a budding intellectual snob leavened with the awkward hesitations of youth. He's hilarious when surreptitiously retrieving the paper towel Lili's used ('We don't use paper towels to dry our hands') from his father's trash and heart-breaking when he recognizes his own callous behavior towards Sophie.
The underutilized Jeff Daniels hasn't fit a role this well since 1993's "Gettysburg." He plays a supercilious control freak without going over the top and without totally losing sympathy. He has a wonderful scene with Laura Linney, where he basically comes to terms with the state of his marriage over the doorstep of his former home. He imitates Jean-Paul Belmondo at a crucial moment and manages to seem foolish, outmoded and charming all at the same time, a fallen lion. Linney has the more sympathetic role as the beleaguered mother. Her character is shown to be flawed (the affairs, ignorance of the younger son's indulgence in alcohol and irresponsibility leaving him alone) but her maternal lapses are mostly off screen, so the performance lacks the complexity of Daniels'. Kevin Kline's son Owen looks like he's got an acting career ahead of him with the strong work he does here, tackling adult material at a very young age.
The Squid and the whale exhibit is a squirm-inducing metaphor for the effect Bernard and Joan have upon one another and the horrific implications their relationship has upon their offspring. As Bernard would say, 'it's dense.'
The Berkman siblings, teenaged Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother Frank (Owen Kline), are about to see their happy family life fall apart. Their college professor father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and fledgling but talented writer-mother Joan (Laura Linney) call a family meeting and announce their separation. Both parents want custody of the boys and decide that each will have them every other day. This proves to be a less than ideal situation as Walt and Frank take sides in the family breakup in “The Squid and the Whale.”
Writer/director Noah Baumbach reprises his own childhood memories in his story about a slice of the life of the Berkman family. Bernard was a promising writer in his younger days but now, in his middle years, has failed to get anything published. Joan, always the diligent housewife for many years, tried her hand at writing and, to Bernard’s chagrin and her surprise, is a success. This causes a rift in their marriage as uber-intellectual Bernard resents Joan getting published and not him. When they decide to split and share custody of their kids there seems to be little concern for how it will affect Walt and Frank. The boys start to take sides and the drama begins.
The Squid and the Whale” is a labor of love by its creator, Baumbach, which works beautifully on two fronts. It has a rock solid script with great dialogue and full-bodied characters. Better still, the film has a cast that is top-notch across the board.
The story about a family falling apart is skillfully told and deals with things like professional and personal jealousy, mainly by Bernard, and the allegiances that form when a marriage breaks up. Things appear black and white as opinionated Bernard spouts his views on literature, art and movies. Walt, who looks up to his father, parrots these opinions as his own and it looks like the battle lines will be drawn with Bernard and Walt on one side and Joan and Frank on the other. But this isn’t black and white and the richness and attention to familial detail soon become apparent. This is one finely scripted flick.
But, even a good script can fall flat if the actors fail to inhabit the characters. Fortunately, the four leads are equal to the task and all give sparkling performances. Jeff Daniels is brilliant as the self-centered, egotistical, intellectual snob, Bernard, and does an outstanding job in rounding out the man into a human being. Laura Linney, too, does a marvelous job as a woman who has lived in the shadows of her husband’s success but, now, enjoys having the spotlight. Jesse Eisenberg, who made such as splash opposite Campbell Scott in “Roger Dodger,” really shows his acting chops as Walt. This young thesp is a force to watch for in the future. Owen Kline, a fresh face for the big screen (although he does resemble the Culkin boys a bit and not his dad, Kevin Kline), does a marvelous job as a pre-teen who has trouble coping with his parents’ split. Even small supporting roles are fully realized – William Baldwin as Frank’s tennis teacher and Joan’s lover, Ivan, and Anna Paquin as Bernard’s foxy student/roommate, Lili, both stand out from the background.
My only fault with “The Squid and the Whale” is a nitpick that poked me in the eye but the average viewer probably won’t notice or care about. The film takes place in the 1980’s and interior scenes and costumes fit the period. But, when the action hits the streets, the filmmakers fail miserably in keeping the new millennium out of the picture with obvious new model cars everywhere. Again, most won’t care and it does little to diminish my respect for the film, its creator, cast and crew. I give it a B+.
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