Two brothers strive to find a place in their new world of joint custody, which is more disjointed than anything else, in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. The story follows an intense, yet comedic, divorce between struggling writer and professor, Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) and newly successful writer, Joan Berkman (Laura Linney). Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), the older brother, identifies more with his philistine-averse father, Bernard. Bernard labels his ex-wife’s boyfriend Ivan (William Baldwin) as a philistine, or as he humorously puts it, “Someone who doesn’t care about books or interesting films and things.”
Twelve-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) is a burgeoning alcoholic who regularly drops the F-bomb around his unfazed parents during tennis or ping-pong games.
The shaky, quick camera movement provides an element of awkwardness and tension to the film. At times it becomes difficult to feel comfortable. Some scenes will literally cause you to cringe and yell out, “Oh gosh, did that really just happen?” Others will make you laugh out loud.
All of the characters are multi-dimensional, each having their own way of dealing with the instability of divorce. The two children cannot possibly be more divided, as each one identifies more with one parent than the other.
Possibly the most poignant performances were put on by Eisenberg and Daniels. Walt’s teen angst is palpable, yet he doesn’t make it obvious. He hides behind overconfidence and pretension (a facade that his father builds for him). But beneath his tough exterior, Walt is filled with sweet, humble gooiness.
It’s hard to believe Daniels once played roles in Arachnophobia and Dumb and Dumber. His portrayal of Bernard Berkman is genuine and convincing. He has a hilarious obsession with finding parking spots and encourages his older son Walt to be promiscuous. After attempting to work things out between himself and his wife, we soon learn he is as maladjusted as his two sons.
One shortcoming of this film is Owen Kline’s character, Frank. Frank is preoccupied with sex and his mother’s love affairs. Sure, he’s a pre-teen with raging hormones, but a few scenes are so unnecessarily graphic that it could ruin the entire film for some people.
Herman Blume’s line in the Wes Anderson film Rushmore sums up the plot of The Squid and the Whale perfectly: “Kids don’t like it when their parents get divorced.” In fact, Anderson produced this film and had previously collaborated with Baumbach on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson’s fingerprints are scattered generously throughout the movie. Though Baumbach’s humor is subtler and darker than those films under Anderson’s direction, the unmistakable quirk is still there.
Ellen Minsavage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org