The Squid & The Whale

October, 2005, Comedy

Directed by:Noah Baumbach

Starring:Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, and Owen Kline

Award winners at the Sundance Film Festival, this country's premier showcase for independent film, generally appeal to audiences in their 20's and 30's; but this movie, which won both script and directing laurels for Noah Baumbach, is the exception that proves the rule. Baumbach, the 35-ish writer/director of a handful of earlier less successful efforts, provides a stinging examination of divorce here, mixing wry commentary with achingly appealing humor in what will turn out to be one of the very best of this year's "little" films. Whether the director is mining his own past, as writer/director Cameron Crowe so often does, is a matter of conjecture--but Baumbach's ability to move from wrenching self-examination to lacerating humor in a single line suggests a more-than-passing knowledge of the terrain being covered.

The Berkmans, Bernard & Joan, (Jeff Daniels & Laura Linney) live on New York's upper west side with their two sons, Walt and Frank, students in senior and junior high respectively. Bernard's a pompous novelist whose career is in a terminal downward spiral obvious to everyone but himself, while Joan's an emerging literary talent whose reputation is about to take off. He's an ass; she's an adulteress, trying to decide how long to stay in their marriage. When she finally pulls the plug, the boys go into respective tailspins so authentically heart-breaking it would be painful to watch were Baumbach not so skillful in making their emotional adjustments such a delicious mixture of innocence lost and ribald humor. Young Frank, nicknamed Pickle by his family, finds solace in booze and masturbation; his older brother, who idolizes Dad, exploits his girlfriend, plagiarizes his way into a talent contest and finally faces a demon from his past as he learns to put the proper distance between himself and the newly found flaws he's discovered in his parents.

As Bernard, Jeff Daniels delivers the performance of his career; officious and vain, he withers under Joan's greater talent and candor, even when he's legitimately confronting her infidelities. Daniels delivers a Bernard who's clueless about his impact on those around him, excusing his own faults as he pontificates about the deficiencies of others. His smug literary pronouncements alone are worth the price of admission. As Joan, Linney provides another one of those spot-on characters for which she's become so deservedly recognized. Aware of her own shortcomings, she struggles to retain the affection of her sons without catering to their careening opinions of her; "I am what I am" her Joan demands, and the boys are just going to have to take her that way.

As the traumatized products of this marriage, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are marvelous; gawky, vulnerable and belligerent all at once; they vacillate between insight and ignorance with the repeated nimbleness available only to the young. Being asked to prematurely recognize their parents as fallible beings, the boys get thrust into an emotional minefield and the explosions which result are a painfully honest mixture of regret, anger and the often painful joy of self-discovery.

As Bernard and Joan's new romantic interests, Anna Pacquin and William Baldwin are also fine, but this film's sparks fly directly from the four Berkmans and their interactions; it's their story and they carry it as surely and effectively as an audience could possibly hope for.

There's no exceptional cinematography here and since the story's a particularly urban one, there's really no reason that it been seen on a big screen. Since it's possible this won't play very widely in theaters, if you can't find it, put it on your DVD list early next year.

The verdict? A small gem, perfectly written and flawlessly acted--with a powerful message about the price children often have to pay when their families fall apart.      

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