The Squid and the Whale Review

Set in 1986 Brooklyn the Berkman family is dealing with the harsh fact that parents Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) are getting a divorce. Both Bernard and Joan are writers and intellectuals but Bernard feels like he’s failed when his wife is suddenly more successful as a writer with a looming book deal that challenges her ex-husband’s masculinity and self-worth. The split-up is also affecting their sons 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) in very different ways. The older son Walt is dealing with it creatively by diving into his music. He has entered a talent contest falsely saying that he wrote a song called “Hey You”–the Pink Floyd song. Meanwhile the younger brother Frank drinks beer swears a lot and talks about his Mom’s sex life. As the marriage collapses the couple deals with the painful process of splitting up households and working out where the boys are living at any given time and even how the cat gets transported from one house to another in order to be fair. The boys are a bit stressed about the two home addresses but they are more upset about the new relationships their parents are having soon after the split–Dad with his young student Lili (Anna Paquin) and Mom with their tennis instructor (William Baldwin). The boys hang onto the hope that their parents will someday unite again but things only seem to get worse. All of the performances are stellar including Oscar-caliber performances from Daniels and Linney. But just like Kramer vs. Kramer it’s the little kid who steals the show. Owen Kline is the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates and the only acting he ever did previously was a family performance that they did in The Anniversary Party recreating a skit they often do at home for fun. Kline shows a lot of depth and humor in the role as he swears and tries to act like a big guy while rebelling against his parents and their divorce. He is obviously hurting inside and he shows a huge range of emotion as his character develops. Eisenberg an up-and-comer in the new generation of teen actors who made his mark in Roger Dodger does a find job as the older brother. Billy Baldwin makes a decent comeback of sorts as the appropriately wooden but sexy and sincere tennis instructor who never made it as a pro. The biggest disappointment is Oscar-winning actress Paquin who seems a bit wasted in a role that any actress of her age could have done. She has more of an emotional arc as the comic book character Rogue in the X-Men series than here. Even if you don’t know what the squid and the whale is at the Museum of Natural History you’ll know how a kid could be fascinated by the giant plaster figures of them in a constant battle as they hang from the ceiling of the museum. Noah Baumbach took this personal material which is loosely based on his own family and turned it into a psychological exploration of family dynamics. It’s not as overly dramatic as a Danny Bonaduce story nor does it pander to the reality show trend but it does offer a window into the pains of a supposedly idyllic family as the parents slowly figure out they can’t stand living under the same roof anymore. The writing is restrained and realistic as the couple and their kids talk around the issues that are the most pressing. There’s a tender heart-tugging and combative scene between Linney and Daniels on the stoop of their brownstone which shows how they probably still love each other but in that moment know that they can never give it another go. It’s impossible to know whether that’s the writing the actors the direction or the fact that the director lived that real moment and knew exactly what he wanted.