The Squid and the Whale

Nov 2, 2005 at 12:00 am

Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s acidic, bitterly smart and profoundly funny portrait of divorce is both brutally honest and humane, an intimate, small-scale masterpiece. It’s Brooklyn in 1986, and the cozy Park Slope home of the Berkman family is about to implode under the weight of its own dysfunction. Intellectuals Joan (Laura Linney) and Bernard (Jeff Daniels) both have Ph.D.s in literature, but are failures as parents and spouses. They’ve devised a joint-custody plan for their two sons, setting up separate kingdoms and obvious battle lines for the warring factions. Things get messier still when Mom takes up with the boys’ tennis coach (William Baldwin) and Dad lets his student-groupie (Anna Paquin) move in.

As the thunderously pompous Bernard, Daniels turns in a highlight performance. Sealed in a hermetic bubble of his own elitist pride, he struts around like a wounded lion, deeply perturbed that no one seems to be volunteering to pluck the thorn from his paw. He’s a blowhard, a habitual name-dropper, and so hilariously cheap that he asks his 12-year-old son for change back after sending him to buy a bottle of aspirin. Yet you can never quite hate Bernard, because Daniels finds a dangling thread of decency somewhere under the mask of snottiness.

Eldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) readily parrots all of his father’s fatuous opinions about films, books and relationships; it doesn’t matter if Walt has read The Great Gatsby so long as he can rifle off some profundities from Dad’s stock directory of asinine pronouncements. Walt is so eager to buy into his parents’ pretensions that he has a poster of the French new wave flick The Mother and the Whore hanging on his bedroom wall, where any normal kid his age would have Van Halen or Heather Locklear; when he passes off a Pink Floyd song as his own at a talent show, he says, “I feel I could have written it.” He even casually tells his affectionate girlfriend she has too many freckles on her face, not because he means it but because his callow pop told him he could do better.

Meanwhile there’s a peek into the hazy realm of adolescent sexuality, as younger sib Frank (Owen Kline) tries to make sense of his mother’s infidelities, and lashes out with alarming episodes of public masturbation. The always-dependable Linney is bravely unglamorous as Joan, unashamed of her affairs but worried that she’s made a mess of motherhood.

Baldwin steals every scene he’s in as the gentle, thick-headed tennis pro who punctuates just about every sentence with “my brother,” but is still far more naturally paternal than Bernard. Paquin has played the seductress, but it’s a role she’s especially suited for here, making a believable object of desire for both father and son.

Baumbach seems to be tapping a deeply personal vein: He grew up in Brooklyn and suffered the split of his novelist father Jonathan and his mother Georgia, a film critic for the Village Voice. To what degree the onscreen turmoil mirrors Baumbach’s childhood is unclear, but the emotional chaos certainly seems to come from someplace refreshingly real.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].