The Squid and the Whale

At the center of The Squid and the Whale is a family on the verge of collapse. Daniel and Joan Berkman are going through a divorce, and their sons Walt and Frank are caught in the middle. Daniel (Jeff Daniels, Good Night, and Good Luck, Because of Winn-Dixie) is a college literature professor. He is egotistical and pretentious, yet has not written anything in years. Joan (Laura Linney, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Kinsey) is also a writer, and Daniel despises that she is now more successful than he is. Although the movie never delves too deeply into why they are splitting, it is clear that Joan had an affair.

The reason that Noah Baumbach's (Mr. Jealousy, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) works is because he contrasts sharp humor with profound sadness. It is really depressing to see Joan and Daniel slowly rip apart, but there is so much humor (both funny and uncomfortable) that it is hard not to laugh. Baumbach uses the humor to cut the tension, in order to make things more bearable. It's interesting to note that there is not one likable character in the film. For the most part, they are all selfish jerks. They say caustic things to another, often followed by awkward silences. And the cast assembled is top-notch.

Headlining is Linney, who gives yet another strong performance. She realized a long time ago that the marriage was over, and just wants to move on. She still loves her children, and will try to work with Daniel because of this. Daniel, on the other hand, has such a good impression of himself that it's hard for him to see anything else. Daniel's gives an amusingly self-absorbed performance. His older son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, Cursed, The Village) looks up to him and is just as arrogant. The difference is that while Daniel may be smart, Walt is just lazy. Daniel's other son, Frank (Owen Cline, The Anniversary Party) doesn't like that his dad is trying to mold him into a mini-Daniel, and prefers the company of his mother.

There isn't really a story, per se. Baumbach lets the characters loose and follows them as they deal with the separation. Daniel moves across the park into a run down house, and one of his students (Anna Paquin, Steamboy, X2) moves in with him. Walt begins dating Sophie (Halley Feiffer, You Can Count on Me), but doesn't realize he acts like a giant ass in front of her. He enters a talent contest at school and claims to have written Pink Floyd's Hey You. Frank is left to his own devices and drinks beer and picks up a "self-involved" pastime. Joan begins dating Frank's tennis instructor, the loopy Ivan (William Baldwin, Art Heist, Red Rover) who calls everybody "brother." As the family disintegrates further, the story coalesces towards the Walt character, who begins the painful process of growing up. He has to learn that nothing is black and white. Everything is more complicated than it initially seems, and Baumbach deftly conveys this with his characters.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 28 minutes, Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue, and language.

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