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SQUID AND THE WHALE, THE(director/writer: Noah Baumbach; cinematographer: Robert Yeoman; editor: Tim Streeto; music: Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips; cast: Jeff Daniels (Bernard Berkman), Laura Linney (Joan Berkman), Jesse Eisenberg (Walt Berkman), Owen Kline (Frank Berkman), Anna Paquin (Lili), William Baldwin (Ivan), Halley Feiffer (Sophie); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Wes Anderson/Peter Newman/Charles Corwin/Clara Markowicz; Samuel Goldwyn Films LLC; 2005)
“In its tragicomic presentation strikes a true note.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s (“Kicking and Screaming”/”Mr. Jealousy”) well-observed bittersweet comedy drama is loosely based on his autobiographical account of his own novelist parents’ breakup. Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) is the eccentric cheapskate patriarch of a Brooklyn family in 1986. He was once a celebrated novelist, pompously elevating himself into the company of Franz Kafka by referring to the literary giant as “one of my predecessors”, but has not been published in recent times and has settled for teaching creative writing at a local college and changing agents in the hopes of getting his latest book published. His good-hearted wife of seventeen years and also a holder of a Ph.D in literature, Joan (Laura Linney), is an aspiring writer who has surprisingly succeeded in getting a book published and excerpts run in The New Yorker even though hubby thinks of himself as the greater talent. Her authorship gets Bernie jealous and adds to his bitterness, and when he discovers she’s having an affair they divorce and he leaves her the Park Slope brownstone while he takes a much lesser apartment across the park. Their two sons, the sixteen-year-old precocious Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and the troubled twelve year-old Frank (Owen Kline), take the divorce to heart. The parents have a joint-custody arrangement which means the boys are shuttled back and forth between the two households on alternate days, with Walter looking up to dad and mimicking his literary opinions and obnoxious snobbish behavior while Frank has a closer bond with mom and resorts to cussing because he doesn’t know how else to express his feelings of disgust.

The comedy is richly mined from how the family members each have their own point of view about the separation, as Baumbach critiques the progressive parenting methods and how the liberated sexual practices have confused the boys and forced them to choose sides and then reevaluate their parents’ behavior and in the end reevaluate their own set of beliefs. Tennis is the sport of choice for the family and it becomes an easy sports metaphor to relate to their own life of gamesmanship, as the philistine family tennis instructor Ivan (William Baldwin) becomes mom’s boyfriend after the divorce–which doubly hurts dad, who divided the world up as a contest between his intellectuals and the enemy philistines.

An attractive 20-year-old adoring student, Lily (Anna Paquin), in Bernie’s class, takes a room in his apartment and they awkwardly try to figure out how to jump-start their unlikely romantic relationship with Walter also having a crush on her. Walter goes out with nice girl Sophie (Halley Feiffer), but wrecks the relationship by being unsure if she’s good enough for him and treating her with disrespect, probably taking out his anger with mom on her. Frank takes out his frustrations by drinking beer and after masturbating leaving his semen in the school library. Bernie never gets over his narcissism, his rancor at the world and his snobbish attitude to those who don’t share his taste in books or movies, while Joan is thrown for a loop as all her sexual infidelities unfold and her habit of calling her darlings Chicken and Pickle begins to wear thin as her relationship with the kids comes in for some needed changes.

There are many dark comical incidents forthcoming and they all point the way to an absurd domestic situation that’s beyond repair, but nevertheless life goes on and these flawed but resilient souls are not depicted as monsters (not even dad) as much as they are likened to quirky bohemian characters who can’t help it that they are so screwed up. We are led to believe they will all survive their messy lives, even dad who in the last scene is carted off in an ambulance from an apparent heart attack, and in all probability they will continue to function rather well even though they’ll never completely change their self-destructive ways.

The film in its tragicomic presentation strikes a true note, as I didn’t find one single thing about it that wasn’t convincing and authentic. In its ruthless depiction of how divorce is often contentious and the children suffer in many emotional ways from the breakup, it offers much to laugh and cry over–which should serve as a slice-of-life drama that’s not afraid to take out the scalpel to cut into what has been eating away at the filmmaker for a long time.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”