Life in a crumbling family of liberal, literary New Yorkers is the subject of Noah Baumbach's tragicomic, semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play Bernard and Joan Berkman, marrieds of 17 years who painfully split and, in the process, shock and awe their two sons.
Teenage Walt (Jesse Eisenberg of Roger Dodger) echoes his father. Both are self-absorbed bluffers, and their co-dependency has taught Walt to make excuses and pass blame. Meanwhile, Walt's younger brother Frank (newcomer Owen Kline) retreats into surly, pubescent confusion. Both boys resent being passed around, and if Mom at least provides a semblance of normalcy, Dad can barely keep it together. Baumbach co-wrote Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but Squid and the Whale is more like The Royal Tenenbaums, if it were set in actual Brooklyn apartments instead of one of Anderson's cinematic dollhouses.
Like Gene Hackman's Royal Tenenbaum, Daniels' Bernard is brilliantly obtuse and sadly funny. A dried-up author who calls Kafka "one of my predecessors" and says of his divorce "I think it has very little to do with me," Bernard's edgy midlife is summed up by his irritable routine of circling his Park Slope block and waiting for a parking space for his noisy compact car. Narrowing his eyes and throwing all his facial weight into his looming brow, Daniels allows Bernard's perpetually tired exterior to belie his bouts of optimism regarding his career and relationships.
"People can be very stupid," says Bernard, and Walt eventually learns to take the warning to heart. Ultimately, The Squid and the Whale is a story of painful teenage individuation. In an act too ballsy for anyone but an adolescent, Walt plagiarizes Pink Floyd's "Hey You" before a room full of parents and peers; the lyrics reflect the boy's hopeful cry for attention ("Hey you, don't tell me there's no hope at all./Together we stand, divided we fall.") In the end, brusquely divested of his illusions, Walt tenderly reaches an understanding of his family while finding self-reliance.
Pithy scenes give The Squid and the Whale a brisk energy. Baumbach invests equal parts humor and sadness in his confession of family foibles, and he wisely resists sparing himself from his story's abundant humiliations.
[For Groucho's interview with Jeff Daniels, click here.]