The Squid and the Whale
A very unhappy family man once said, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Perhaps he was thinking of the Berkmans of Park Slope, who in "The Squid and the Whale" are in the process of divorcing without bothering to examine why. Husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is moving out of his third marriage, this one to Joan (Laura Linney), who's been having a series of affairs over the past number of years. Up until the final break they've been able to keep it all from their two sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 11-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), each of whom is blindsided by the news.
Not only that, Bernard has insisted that custody be shared to the extent that he has the boys every Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, along with every other Thursday, and there is even provision for moving the family cat back and forth each week.
Once upon a time Bernard was a hot young novelist, but now even his agent has deserted him; at the same time Joan has just had her own novel published, and even excerpted in The New Yorker. Bernard is a snob and a conceited bore who can only drop names and smirk at the work of other novelists.
But "The Squid and the Whale" is not interested in the parents as much as it is the two boys, who understandably begin to act out their own resentments and fears. Walt initially sides with his father, is furious at Joan, steals a Pink Floyd song and claims it as his own at a school talent show, while Frank, who's closer to Joan and just discovered masturbation, makes a point of leaving his semen in odd corners of the school library.
The film was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, who himself grew up in Park Slope as the child of two writers, and Baumbach doesn't play blame games; rather he just lets us follow the family through the agonies and occasionally funny moments of life after divorce. Unfortunately he hasn't given Bernard's character much in the way of a saving grace or two, and so Mr. Daniels comes off as something of an obnoxious, self-pitying prig; while Ms. Linney is so warm and sympathetic an actress that we find ourselves lined up on her side, in spite of the years of her unexplained affairs.
But the two boys are magnificent; everything they go through is written on their faces for us to see. We cringe as Walt finds and then loses a girlfriend through adolescent stupidity. We are saddened to watch Frank discover that alcohol can numb the pain. But nothing here is life-threatening; these are wonderful, bright boys who will survive and grow, and we enjoy every moment we spend with them.
The title of the film comes from Walt's childhood memory of visiting the Museum of Natural History and having nightmares about the exhibit of a great squid and a giant whale locked in a death battle; but by the end he can look at it without fear. He will be all right.