Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney
If for no other reason, Noah Baumbach should be commended for his refusal to sugarcoat things. He is totally and completely willing to let his characters be assholes and the honesty of his work, the relentless way in which he exposes the pretensions of his characters, almost serves to make them endearing. The Squid and the Whale is about a family dealing with the pain of divorce and is unforgiving and forgiving in equal measure.
The parents are Bernard and Joan, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney – already the movie is great. They have two sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline). Walt strongly identifies with his father and parrots his many opinions. He’s defensive of the fact that Bernard, a novelist, hasn’t been published in quite some time, and dismissive of Joan’s attempt to start her own career as a writer. When Bernard and Joan announce their divorce, Walt places the blame squarely on his mother, whom he believes has ended the marriage because Bernard isn’t wealthy or successful enough. If Walt had the benefit of a different perspective, he would see that it has more to do with the fact that Bernard is almost inconceivably selfish and conceited. When Bernard reveals that Joan had numerous affairs during their marriage, it gives Walt the excuse he needs to make his father’s house his sole residence. Frank, meanwhile, will continue to shuffle between his parents’ houses, at Joan’s house one day and Bernard’s the next.
Walt begins dating a girl in his class who is impressed by his seeming ability for deep thought. He echoes his father’s thoughts on “The Metamorphosis” and she surprises him by reading it so that they can discuss it, hoping perhaps to impress him with her own intellect. It is painfully apparent during the course of their conversation that despite his knowledge of the work’s importance, he has in fact never read it. All he can contribute to the conversation is that the ending is “ambiguous” and that the work itself is “Kafka-esque.” She points out that it would have to be, seeing as it was written by Kafka, and then lets it slide. They make out for a while and then he tells her that she has too many freckles. Walt is lucky because a girl a decade older would tell him to fuck off, but at 16 most girls are too insecure and inexperienced to know better. Eisenberg is perfect as Walt, particularly in those moments when someone calls him out on his behavior. He always looks so shocked that people are able to see through his façade that instead of hating him for his unearned arrogance, you instead feel sorry for him because he’s making his life so much harder than it has to be.
While Walt is coming to the slow realization that neither he nor his father is so great that everyone should bow down before them, Frank is experiencing his own growing pains. While it is apparent that Bernard enjoys Walt’s company (probably because Walt makes for such an eager audience), Bernard’s relationship with Frank is a lot less solid. Frank sees through a lot of Bernard’s posturing and prefers the company of his mother and her new boyfriend, Ivan (William Baldwin), a fellow so dim and happy and eager to please that he’s reminiscent of a golden retriever. Bernard can’t understand what Joan could possibly see in Ivan because he can’t comprehend that a woman would want to be with a man who’s nice to her if she could be with an intellectual who could lecture her on any subject and crush her spirit beneath the weight of his own genius.
None of the characters gets off easy, though Bernard bears the brunt of the film’s criticism. The film presents him as a man who sets himself apart on the strength of his intellect and then desperately grasps at others as they start to turn away from him. He’s a very sad man and Daniels plays him brilliantly from beginning to end. Linney is similarly brilliant (can we start a petition to have her declared a national treasure already?) and though the film is more sympathetic to Joan, she’s not immune from criticism. Neither of these people are particularly fair to their children, to whom they reveal brutal truths whether they’re ready to hear them or not, and they often put their own wants/needs ahead of those of their children. Part of what makes the film so strong is that it doesn’t try to shy away from that or excuse it, it just lets it be. It isn't always pretty, but the film has a stronger ring of truth than most films.