The effect of divorce on children is hardly a new theme, either in literature or on film, but Noah Baumbach gives it a fresh take in “The Squid and the Whale,” a literate, sharply-observed film that juggles tragic and comedic elements to achieve a wonderfully distinctive tone. The title refers to an exhibit in a New York museum in which the two giants of the sea are locked in a death struggle, and when the older of two brothers whose parents suddenly announce their intention to split confesses how it terrified him as a boy, he’s actually admitting how the battle between his mother and father is sending him and his sibling into a state of shock and fear of the future. The film portrays the ways in which the youngsters try to cope with what’s clearly a devastating situation, though often in very destructive ways, while also showing how the parents attempt to deal with their new lives and provide support to their children, however ineptly. In doing so the film proves both hilarious and poignant, sometimes within the space of a single moment.
The story, set in the not-so-distant past (1986) and a very specific environment (the Park Slope area of Brooklyn)–the very time and place where Baumbach himself grew up–is, on the surface, a very simple one. Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) is a once-successful novelist now teaching creative writing at a local college; his wife Joan (Laura Linney), by contrast, is a writer on the cusp of a successful career. The tension between them leads to a decision to divorce–something that causes understandable turmoil in sixteen-year old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and twelve-year old Frank (Owen Kline). The parents’ efforts to divide custody of the boys amicably is complicated by Joan’s taking up with Frank’s tennis instructor Ivan (William Baldwin) and Bernard’s taking in one of his students, the voluptuous Lili (Anna Paquin), as a housemate. And the boys are torn in their loyalties, with Frank preferring the stability of life with his mother and Walt unable to forgive what he perceives as Joan’s betrayal of the father whom he idolizes.
This description might make the film sound like a typical Lifetime domestic drama, but it’s far from that. Baumbach creates lead characters of richness and depth, giving them credible shadings of light and darkness, and he fashions their specific world of frayed academia with exquisite care. Both of the Berkman parents are deeply narcissistic figures, oblivious to how much they’re hurting one another and self-absorbed even when they try to connect with their children. Bernard, beautifully played with a mixture of pompous arrogance and extravagant self-pity by Daniels, is a man who superciliously looks down on everyone, even in his ludicrously pedantic pronouncements on authors like Dickens and Fitzgerald (and his own wife); and while he tries to bond with his sons, he can’t help but use even them as targets of his pathetic need to exhibit his own wounded sense of superiority. Linney’s Joan isn’t as memorable, but the actress seizes upon the opportunities the part affords to make her recognizably human and flawed. Eisenberg follows up his turn in “Roger Dodger” with one that’s even sharper, though far less appealing. Walt is as smugly opinionated and judgmental as his father; the problem is that his views are simply borrowed from Bernard. The emptiness of the result is demonstrated not only in his attempt to pass off a Pink Floyd song as his own in a school talent show (he dismisses the charge that it’s plagiarism by saying that he feels he could have written it, so it’s essentially his) but in his ineptitude dealing with pretty classmate Sophie(Halley Feiffer)–whom Bernard, trying to act the worldly stud, actually suggests he treat cavalierly. And Owen Kline is touching as the troubled younger son whose emotional torment finds expression in a most unusual practice. While neither Paquin and Baldwin have parts with anywhere near the complexity of these, Baumbaum has given each of them more limited but very real opportunities to shine, and they seize them wonderfully: Paquin makes a marvelously seductive Lolita, while Baldwin outdoes even Keanu Reeves in painting a figure of slightly dazed mellowness.
There’s great dramatic perception and honesty in “The Squid and the Whale,” but it’s also pointedly satiric and funny. It’s that mixture of the wrenching and the comic that makes it so remarkable. This is a surprisingly rich, powerful–and sharply humorous–treatment of a familiar subject. It just goes to show that if approached with a fresh eye, even the oldest of formulas can be made new. As Bernard might opine, this movie is the filet of pictures about family breakups.