Jeff Daniels as Bernard Berkman
Laura Linney as Joan Berkman
Jesse Eisenberg as Walt Berkman
Owen Kline as Frank Berkman
Halley Feiffer as Sophie
Anna Paquin as Lili
William Baldwin as Ivan
Alexandra Daddario as Kate Roach
Eli Gelb as Jeffrey
Henry Glovinsky as Lance
Mixing a coming-of-age story with a dysfunctional family comedy, Noah Baumbach’s top-notch script and original characters make up for its low-budget production values.
It’s 1986, and the Berkham family of Brooklyn is torn apart when writing parents Bernard and Joan (Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney) decide to go their separate ways. They decide to share custody of their two sons, Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline), forcing them to go from one end of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to the other, disrupting their lives in odd and often comedic ways.
When you think of films about separation and divorce, comedies like “War of the Roses” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” immediately jump out. While Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical third film doesn’t have the budget or the Hollywood gloss of those films, it more than makes up for it with some of the finest verbal sparring on film.
But before we get to that, we see the happy family playing a game of doubles tennis, but it’s not long before problems are clearly afoot, as Bernard brutishly lobs the ball directly at his wife. It’s a bit of not-so-subtle foreshadowing to their decision to separate, which crushes their sons, not only by the prospective of losing their family, but also by their ridiculous joint custody arrangements that are made. The younger brother Frank is particularly confused about what’s going on, since he’s too young to understand, and he’s forced to grow up faster than he should, as he starts displaying some rather erratic behavior.
We soon learn that there’s a lot more behind the divorce than just a couple that no longer gets along. Part of it stems from Bernard’s jealousy of his wife’s sudden success as a writer, while he’s a bit of a has-been author in between publishers and projects. This jealousy escalates in amusing ways as Bernard tries to turn the boys against their mother. When Walt finds out that his mother had been having affairs with various men, he blames her for the family falling apart and decides to side with his father. Problem is that Bernard is a know-it-all intellectual who spouts opinions, usually wrong ones, about anything and everything, something that Walt immediately inherits as he repeats what he’s been told to humorous results.
Baumbach’s script is inspired, full of wry humor and sarcasm delivered with just the right dry approach to make it even funnier. Sure, it’s strange finding humor watching a family fall apart, but everything they do is done with such conviction that it’s hard not to laugh at the situations that arise. It also makes you wonder how much of this was inspired by Baumbach’s own parents or incidents from his teen years. His way with words and characters will probably be compared to the early work of Wes Anderson, not surprising since Baumbach cowrote Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic” and Anderson produced this film in return. Certainly, a dysfunctional family with a penchant for tennis is a bit like “The Royal Tenenbaums” although maybe the two filmmakers just have similar backgrounds.
Beyond watching the grown-ups squabble and use their kids against each other, there’s not that much of a story. At first, the characters aren’t even particularly likeable, but as they’re exposed for who they really are, they begin to accept their shortcomings and try to make the most of things. It’s really nice that Baumbach doesn’t resort to the overly sentimental or sappy melodrama that we’ve seen in so many mainstream comedies lately.
It’s hard to hold up one of the four principles above the rest as they’re all well cast in their roles, and it’s their interaction that makes this movie so enjoyable. Jeff Daniel’s Bernard is cut from the same cloth as Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum or Jeff Bridges’ Ted Cole from last year’s “The Door on the Floor,” someone who is so sure of themselves even when they’re obviously wrong. This type of character is always entertaining to watch, especially when you know their fall will come soon enough. Laura Linney is also as fantastic as always playing the boy’s mother. She even reminds me a bit of my own mother in some ways, always knowing exactly what to say to quell any situation.
Jesse Eisenberg is the one who really has his work cut out for him, and he does a great job pulling off Walt’s faux-confidence, whether sermonizing to his school chums or plagiarizing Pink Floyd for a talent contest, claiming it to be his own composition. Since this story is really about Walt’s coming-of-age, a lot of the film follows him trying to lose his virginity, mainly to his sweet classmate Sophie, but thanks to some bad advice on women from his father, he starts pursuing the extroverted Lilly, as played by Anna Paquin in another hot-for-teacher role ala the one she played in Spike Lee’s “The 25th Hour.” Of course, it doesn’t help that Walt’s father also has an eye on Lilly, especially when he suggests that she move into the spare room in their house.
Owen Kline is quite a find as his younger brother, although the scenes of Frank getting drunk and does all sorts of obscene acts seems a bit farfetched, crossing over into Todd Solondz territory. In general, he’s involved with most of the film’s odder scenes and exchanges. On the other hand, William Baldwin steals most of his scenes as the doofus tennis pro who young Frank looks up to, and all he has to do is call someone “my brother” to get laughs.
The film’s production values aren’t that great, something to be expected considering its negligible budget, but Baumbach does a great job recreating the film’s mid-80s Brooklyn setting in clever ways. At times, the shaky camerawork and bad edits are distracting, but most of the time, the writing and acting make up for these technical issues.
If you’re the inquisitive type, you’ll probably spend most of the film wondering the significance of the title. (Never fear, it makes sense by the end.)
The Bottom Line:
Noah Baumbach has made a highly original film by tapping into his own adolescence and family life. Its cynical nature might make it a bit of an acquired taste, much like the early work of the film’s executive producer Wes Anderson, but given the proper patience, it delivers.
The Squid and the Whale opens in New York on October 5 and in Los Angeles on October 14.