Written and directed by Noah Baumbach
With Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, Stephen Baldwin, Halley Feiffer
Rated R; 80 minutes
Given the number of divorces in this country, it’s a bit surprising there aren’t more good movies about how it affects the kids. There’s Shoot the Moon and Kramer vs. Kramer for drama, and The Women and Mrs. Doubtfire for farcical relief, and perhaps a few others. But even the best of these films are generally more about the parents than about the actual, day-to-day impact on the kids: the ugly secrets revealed as the parents use their children as pawns; the kids’ need to parent their parents; plenty of guilt and recriminations to go around; and the sheer confusion and banality of constantly moving from house to house in the purgatory of joint custody, or of weekends spent with the non-custodial parent that are simultaneously boring and over in a flash.
More than any film I’ve seen on the subject, The Squid and the Whale really captures, with the precision of a well-written short story, what kids go through as their parents split up. It’s both very specific to its time and milieu — mid-1980s Brooklyn amid the intellectual/literati class — and universal in the emotions it relentlessly charts. It’s also one of the few films recognizing that, as crummy as divorce can be, it’s also an adventure for kids that can be funny at times — even as the laugh dies in your throat.
Squid also provides terrific roles for the quartet making up this soon-to-be former family. Jeff Daniels is pitch-perfect as Bernard Berkman, a failing/failed novelist who uses his intellect as a club, to categorize and cut down to size his romantic rivals and to rationalize away anything that intrudes on his enormous self-regard. Daniels, with a graying beard and tired eyes, has never seemed quite so masculine on film before — in both the flattering and unflattering senses of the word. Listen to the way he says the film’s signature phrase, “Don’t be difficult,” with the expectation that this will end all arguments, shaded by the sneaking suspicion that it won’t.
As Joan, Laura Linney, always a delight, handles the complexities of what’s arguably a more difficult role — the good mother who nevertheless has many moments of selfishness, without ever devolving into self-pity. She has a great scene near the end of the film when, after hearing a particularly pathetic half-truth from her ex-husband, she lets out a laugh that’s also partly crying and partly screaming. Linney captures how painful it can be to be disappointed in someone you once idolized.
Jesse Eisenberg, as their teenage son Walt, also performs a tough balancing act. The character tries to play it cool as his world deconstructs around him, and the audience sees both the frightened boy and the budding narcissist behind the mask. Those around him don’t see his terror, less because he’s actually good at hiding it than because their own agendas make it easier to pretend he’s fine.
It’s tougher to ignore younger son Frank (Owen Kline), whose acting out (underage drinking, masturbation habits that would make Portnoy blush) is more overt and attention-grabbing than his brother’s. Kline, and writer/director Noah Baumbach, avoid the temptation to make Frank a sitcom-cute 12-year-old, making his behavior and smart remarks seem like the products of a confused, sensitive kid in pain rather than those of a middle-aged writer seeking a quick laugh.
Not everything comes up to the level of these four performances in Baumbach’s film, reportedly based on his own experiences while his parents were separating. That New-Yorker-short-story “literary” quality can also make for some fairly obvious reiterations of the theme. Almost the first words we hear are “Me and mom against you and dad,” referring to a doubles tennis match that sets up the family dynamic of husband vs. wife and brother vs. brother. And Daniels’ Bernard is always complaining about losing his parking space (admittedly a huge loss in narrow-streeted, auto-unfriendly Brooklyn), a fairly obvious metaphor for his wife’s adultery.
There’s also a too-convenient construct character, a sexy female student of Bernard’s who excites the lust of both father and older son when Bernard invites her to live in his spare room. She’s played well by Anna Paquin but seems to exist mostly to put a strain on Walt’s relationship with a nice Jewish girl (Halley Feiffer) and also to set up a quasi-incestuous rivalry between Walt and Bernard. It’s not clear if Baumbach wants to make her simply the sum of her clichés (she writes “feminist” short stories that are, as Bernard points out, all about her vagina) or a real character.
Joan’s new bedmate Ivan (William Baldwin) is a more easily caricatured figure of fun, the sexy tennis pro. The complication here is that he also happens to be Frank’s tennis teacher. Baldwin shows a gift for wry comedy in a less-than-fleshed-out part.
But the film is really the kids’ story, and on those terms it works well, with its humor and its despair springing from real wells of feeling. Baumbach doesn’t traffic in easy resolutions: Walt gains a bit of self-knowledge by the film’s end, with some help from an insightful school counselor (Ken Leung) as well as the huge squid and whale display at the American Museum of Natural History (hence the film’s title, with the two sea creatures standing in for his battling parents), but there’s no nonsense that this revelation solves his, or his family’s, problems. Divorces go on for a long time after the papers are signed.
Be warned: this movie could be quite painful if you or a family member is in the process of a divorce. On the other hand, it might provide a comforting dollop of schadenfreude to see that, as messy as your real-life breakup is, there are always worse ones out there.