"The Squid and the Whale" chronicles Baumbach's youth
You might expect "The Squid and the Whale," written and directed by "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" writer Noah Baumbach to be laden with humor. Of course, it has a funny luster, but the witty moments do little to mask what is, at heart, one of the saddest films to hit theaters this year.
The 80-minute picture is based on Baumbach's own childhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is 16 and his brother Frank (Owen Kline) about 10 and they live with their parents, both writers, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney), as writer couples do, in a Park Slope brownstone. At first their home seems like a place where stimulating conversation touches on literature, tennis and intellectual pursuits.
But when Bernard and Joan separate, the boys are shocked and full of questions ("what will happen to the cat?"). Bernard and Joan work out a joint custody schedule that ensures them absolutely equal time with their kids, whose lives will be turned upside by almost constant travel on the Q train from mom's house to dad's place.
And with that deal struck, the parents' relationship continues to impose its vicious will on Walt and Frank, invariably putting spite, retribution and self-satisfaction above the needs of the boys, who, not surprisingly act out.
Frank, who clearly sides with Joan even after learning the details of her many affairs, begins to travel a road of sexual deviance at school. Walt, who has chosen dad in the conflict, has the added -- and unenviable in this situation -- struggle of trying to enter the world of dating and sex at the same time and is thoroughly confused.
His smug aesthete's stance begins to crumble as we begin to realize he hasn't read any of the great works but has derived his haughty views from what he's heard his father -- a bitter, failing novelist -- say. When he claims to have written the Pink Floyd song that he performs at the school talent show, he is thoroughly exposed.
While dad's career has flopped and he is forced to live in near-squalor, mom's writing for the New Yorker and has inked a deal with respected Knopf to publish her novel. And she's living in the brownstone, having an affair with Frank's tennis coach Ivan (William Baldwin).
Meanwhile, Frank does what he can to infuriate his father and Walt can barely hold a civil conversation with his mother.
And dad, making a meager living as a teacher, has ill advisedly allowed one of his students, Lili (Anna Paquin), to move in with him. He wants her, even though he knows he can't cross the student/teacher divide, and -- to add to the conflict -- so does Walt.
We don't know how the kids will emerge from this situation, but we suspect they will. After all, we know that Baumbach himself, has channeled the pain into great films. Meanwhile, we are treated to what may be Daniels' best performance ever and some similarly fine ones by the entire cast.
"The Squid and the Whale" is one of the year's best and it opens in Milwaukee on Friday, Dec. 9 at Landmark's Oriental Theatre.
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