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I have yet to see Noah Baumbach’s debut film Kicking and Screaming, but I can only hope it shows the sarcastic wit and heart that his later effort The Squid and the Whale does. What is supposed to be a very personal story that mirrors his life growing up with his intellectual writer father and misfit family, really hits all its marks. While a film like Running with Scissors fails because its comedy is at the expense of flawed characters, Baumbach’s film succeeds because its people aren’t trying to be goofy and insane—they are just being who they are, self-absorbed and clinical when it comes to feeling love. They create circumstances that are humorous for outsiders looking in rather than for themselves. Every actor is fantastic and whether that is because of the writing or vice versa, it doesn’t matter because the movie works on all levels.

We have a family consisting of a father who is a famous author on somewhat of a decline and a mother who is finally coming into her own with the same field. Her past indiscretions and a mounting sense of loathing between the two, both personally and professionally, inevitably lead to their separation. In the middle of this are their two children, one in high school (Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt) and one in middle school (Owen Kline as Frank). For more of a staying on equal footing with each other rather than the good of the children, the parents decide on joint custody, using their favorite child as both a pawn and a spy. Each member of the family strives to be special and always at the expense of each other.

The Squid and the Whale is a dramedy that shows the division of the Berkman family and how they cope with it all. Yes, there is an evolution of character for both of the sons as they finally figure out what truly matters in life and how much their parents have been using them against the other. However, this result is inevitable in a film of this kind. What really matters is whether the audience enjoys the road that is taken to get to that point. With the assembled cast, you couldn’t want more. Kline can be a tad out of bounds with some of his roles’ activities, but I fault the writing here, (its only misstep although forgivable), and overall he is wonderful as the younger child acting out for the attention that he needs to feel he matters. Eisenberg really shines as our main conduit into the story, so much like his mother, yet constantly wanting to be his father to the point where he does everything like him. It’s these moments that really deliver the laughs because the father, played impeccably by Jeff Daniels, is so pretentious and pompous that hearing his words come out of his son is priceless. These kids confuse their parent’s activities as canon and find themselves losing everything they enjoy in life as a result.

Laura Linney is perfect as the mother who can’t help herself from speaking candidly and with everyone no matter what age. A woman who cannot see the differences that age creates between people, she talks of her infidelity with her older son, much to his disgust, and allows her youngest to drink alcohol. The real payoff here is that while treating them as adults much too early, she still calls them “chicken” and “pickle” respectively. As far as Daniels goes, his self-loathing and generally angry demeanor make you kind of feel for him, as he does try to be better, but just can’t change. Early success seems to have made him alienate himself from society and his outlook on life is one-of-kind. His flippant remarks about “minor-Dickens” and Kafka being his predecessor are so deadpan that I was laughing to the point of tears. The big laughs, though, are these little remarks from his son, like that of a Kafka story being very Kafkaesque. Hmmm…go figure.

Through all the laughs, however, there is a lot of heart on display. While misplaced, each member of the Berkman family does love each other; they just have a hard time displaying their affections. All their run-ins never seem too contrived and the evolution that goes on is always real. I also must give credit to Baumbach for his subtle yet perfect conclusion. Eisenberg’s run through the streets to the one place he remembers being utterly happy makes you finally realize the hold his parents have on him—both holds of compassion and destruction.

The Squid and the Whale 9/10

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photography:
[1] Laura Linney (Joan Berkman), Owen Kline (Frank Berkman), Jeff Daniels (Bernard Berkman), and William Baldwin (Ivan) in Samuel Goldwyn Films’ drama The Squid and the Whale – 2005
[2] Left to right: Jeff Daniels (Bernard Berkman), Halley Feiffer (Sophie) and Jesse Eisenberg (Walt Berkman) in Samuel Goldwyn Films’ drama The Squid and the Whale – 2005

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