The story takes place in the mid-80s New York City, and is apparently based on director Noah Baumbach’s own family unravelling when he was a teenager. Dad Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a famous writer. Or, rather he was more famous than he is now, and is pretty much a pretentious washout without much recent success. Mom Joan (Laura Linney) was wowed by Bernard when they were courting, but now she herself is coming into her own as a writer, and is getting published left and right, bruising Bernard’s bloated self-image. But the story really belongs to the kids: teenager Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), who is molded in the same pseudo-intellectual mold as his dad, and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) who is dealing with his family’s chaos in his own, um, unusual ways.
Now, Jeff Daniels is an actor that I mentally put in the same category as Bill Pullman. Talented enough to hold his own, but still kind of bland. If he’s in a romantic comedy, he’s “nice guy” that never gets the girl. But I was wowed by Daniels in The Squid and the Whale. He is freakin’ hilarious, with his scruffy professor beard, wounded ego, and suppressed rage (that sometimes comes out in aggressive ping-pong games with his younger son). Daniels is fabulous, and is the best part about this movie.
But the rest of the cast also does fine. Jesse Eisenberg flails about, trying to keep his head above water while trying to maintain an image of an super-intellectual like his dad. Too good to actually read the classic novels assigned to him in class, he spouts nonsense like, “The ending of Metamorphoses is very Kafka-esque…” and occasionally gets called on it. He has a crush on his dad’s hot college student (Anna Paquin), whom his father casually invites to live with him in his new bachelor dump. (Alarm bells went off in my head when Daniels’ character makes a move on Paquin… “She’s YOUR DAUGHTER!!!” I wanted to scream. “Don’t you remember that nice movie you made together about the geese?!!?”) Laura Linney unfortunately doesn’t have too many scenes, but her matter-of-fact intelligence shines when she tries to explain to her sons the various affairs she’s had… in detail!
The Squid and the Whale is an emotionally raw, yet funny and even touching take on a very real event that scars many many people. All of the characters are flawed in Baumbach’s tale, but it is hard to hate anyone in this divorce. You just hope they’ll all heal enough to move on.