- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2005

“The Squid and the Whale” takes its name from a giant diorama in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History that depicts a nasty underwater tussle — but don’t let that fool you into thinking this wonderful coming-of-age movie is some kind of aquatic “March of the Penguins.” As much as it’s possible for a film to chronicle human affairs, this one does it — does it better, in fact, than any other film so far this year.

“Squid” is sensitive, wryly observant, funny and in its way devastating; it never sentimentalizes or preaches or flinches from the truth.

As writer-director Noah Baumbach’s thinly veiled on-screen memoir reaches its climax, it emerges that the squid and the whale, so to speak, are Bernard and Joan Berkman, as magnified in the mind of their adolescent son.

Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) are mid-‘80s bohemian Brooklynites whose marriage, rocked by infidelity, is about to founder once and for all over a professional rivalry: He is a washed-up novelist forced to teach creative writing to pay the bills, while she is about to score her first book deal.

News of impending divorce is broken to the couple’s two children, Walt, 16, and Frank, 12, in a frank family discussion that turns on the inevitable custody allotment. The arrangement — Bernard gets the children Tuesday, Wednesdays, Saturdays and every other Thursday — is painstakingly rational and succeeds precisely to the degree that the relationship between parents and children is defined by rationality — that is, not at all.

The movie’s center of gravity is Walt, who is played by the clever young actor Jesse Eisenberg of “Roger Dodger” renown. It’s not out of line to assume that Walt is a surrogate for the director’s younger self growing up under the Park Slope, Brooklyn roof of novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice movie critic Georgia Brown. With that in mind, “The Squid and the Whale” is a merciless self-rebuke as much as it is an inventory of his parents’ foibles and failings.

While Frank (Owen Kline, the son of actors Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) inclines toward his mother, Walt favors Bernard in all his brittle self-assurance, right down to aping the latter’s pretentious appraisals of literary fiction (such as that “A Tale of Two Cities” is “minor Dickens”).

As the guitar-drilling Walt tries to pass off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own song, it becomes clear that he has taken his father’s outward confidence and penchant for sound bites (Bernard is particularly, and comically, fond of the metaphorical use of the word “filet”) as a license to short-circuit his own intellectual development. Even more alarmingly, Walt adopts his father’s heartless advice on romance in a tragically awkward relationship with a schoolmate (Halley Feiffer).

Frank, meanwhile, is experiencing the onset of puberty. Add your parents’ divorce — and the sight of mom messing around with your hipster tennis instructor (William Baldwin) — to that hormonal explosion, and you have a recipe for erratic behavior. Erring on the side of decorum, let’s just say Frank discovers a solitary activity that he nonetheless feels like sharing with the public.

As deftly as Mr. Baumbach, cinematographer Robert Yeomon and set designer Anne Ross nail the visual stuff — the Brooklyn brownstone; the street-level details; the well-placed books, like Saul Bellow’s “The Victim,” whose title faintly insinuates a character’s mind-set — Mr. Daniels and Miss Linney shine as complicated, selfish, passionate people.

Mr. Daniels’ Bernard is a disheveled prig who, despite himself — despite his windy lectures and pathetic competitive streak, his shortcomings as a father and his preening dismissal of “philistines” who aren’t interested in books or “interesting movies” — still comes across as sympathetic. Miss Linney’s Joan is the comparatively responsible parent, but never unaware of her own ambitions, which necessarily disturb family harmony.

The great thing about “The Squid and the Whale” is that, unlike Walt and Frank, we’re never asked to choose sides.

****

TITLE: “The Squid and the Whale”

RATING: R (Strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Produced by Wes Anderson, Peter Newman, Charles Corwin and Clara Markowicz. Cinematography by Robert Yeoman. Edited by Tim Streeto. Original music by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips.

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.squidandthewhalemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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