Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” is far more calamitous than a smackdown between undersea behemoths.
It’s a raw, searing portrait of husband against wife, mom against dad, kids against parents, a tale of divorce and family breakdown that, like the shock of your own folks splitting up, strikes with a wallop of conflicting emotion and shifting sympathies.
Baumbach’s comic drama packs a dazzling range of insights and breathlessly steamrolls the audience with a string of big and little moments that add up to a cathartic portrait of domestic paradise lost, forgotten, forsaken.
Jeff Daniels delivers a career performance as one of the great big-screen jerks, a father and husband who grows more blindly and cruelly steeped in his own self-importance even as his personal and professional eminence erodes.
Reinforced by powerful turns from Laura Linney and young actors Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline, “The Squid and the Whale” presents a marriage crashing and burning from all perspectives, parents’ and children’s.
For all its weighty drama and acrimony, the film is never heavy-handed. Baumbach injects wondrously comic moments and makes them work seamlessly within the broader melodrama.
The film carries autobiographical overtones, shot in the same Brooklyn neighborhoods where Baumbach grew up and set in the mid-1980s, when his parents divorced.
Yet while Baumbach notes that some images — particularly recollections of a museum diorama of a death match between a squid and whale — came right from his own life, he says the film is a reinvention, true to the emotions he felt but not necessarily the particulars.
The tone is perfectly set in the opening scene, a tennis match in which dominate-at-all-costs Bernard Berkman (Daniels) repeatedly batters the ball at wife Joan (Linney), a lesson in poor sportsmanship for their sons, 16-year-old Walt (Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Kline).
All this couple has left to offer their kids is rancor. The decision to split up and share custody quickly follows.
Bernard is a writing professor and novelist who had a promising literary career but now finds his talent drying up and no one willing to publish his latest book. Once a mentor to his wife, Bernard grows increasingly bitter over Joan’s rising fortunes as a writer herself.
In Walt and Frank, Baumbach beautifully captures the aching sense of confusion, betrayal and resentment children can feel when their parents part. Allegiances twist and turn, the brothers finding themselves siding against each other with opposite parents.
Complicating matters are new relationships in their parents’ lives, Bernard taking up with a bright young student (Anna Paquin), Joan with the family’s tennis pro (William Baldwin).
Both boys act out, Frank in hilariously disgusting prepubescent acts of masturbation at school, Walt in even funnier acts of plagiarism involving a Pink Floyd song at a talent show.
The film’s brilliance is in the details, from fights over how to share the family cat to Bernard’s clumsy attempts to make his run-down rental feel just like home by promising Frank a poster of his tennis idol.
Linney marvelously plays Joan as a woman tired of martyring herself to the braggart she has outgrown. Kline — son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, close pals of Baumbach and his new wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh — shows poise and depth beyond his years.
Eisenberg, who starred in “Roger Dodger,” is the soul of the film, his character torn between the maternal apron strings that molded him and the teenage cockiness that prods him to behave like a Cliff’s Notes echo of his fat-headed dad.
Daniels merits serious Academy Awards consideration for his performance, imbuing Bernard with a whirlwind of bluster that grows infinitesimally more subdued and pathetic with each scene. At the height of his odiousness, Daniels’ Bernard still manages to be — if not lovable — at least pitiable, a man clearly in need of slaps and hugs in equal number.
Baumbach paces the film with such economy, the story hurtles by, yet the film is so nuanced, it bears repeat viewings. By the time the wistful, oddly hopeful closing image abruptly fades, you may already be thinking about lining up to buy another ticket.