Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale has unsurprisingly been compared to his cohort Wes Anderson's work (they collaborated on Life Aquatic together), for the dysfunctional family dynamics, the precocious children, the predeliction for tennis, but the comparison is almost entirely incorrect. It has an immediacy and a lack of pretense that Anderson's films, as much as I adore most of them, usually lack. Even though, or because of the fact that, this is based on Baumbach's own family, he could easily have given this an air of detachment, too, and he could have made the main character - teenage Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) a less flawed character. Instead, he takes us right in, making all four members of this family dealing with separation almost unbearably flawed, even, at times, weak. In short, real human beings.
It's also one of the best films ever produced about the pains of divorce. (I went through a divorce myself, and even if our families are quite different, I'm acutely aware of what Baumbach is honing in on here.) He surely exaggerates the parental characterizations a bit, but expertly captures the way each person affected by separation reacts differently, and the way divorce affects circles of people around the couple, like a stone rippling in a pond. In short, as one teenage character says in the film (as does its tagline), "Joint custody blows."
The film is particularly expert in showing how divorce turns what may seem semantical arguments into something deeper, as people wrestle for whatever crumbs of control they can manage.
[As in the pained exchange between father and son when the latter irks his father by referring to the old homestead as "our house."
Bernard: You mean, mom's house.
Walt: That's what I said.
Bernard: You said our house, this house is your house, too.]
The screenplay is full of wonderful dialogue that is probably more delightful when read off the page than to witness the achingly good actors bring the words to life, where it becomes more grimace-inducing. Much has already been made of Jeff Daniels' terrific performance as Bernard, the bastard of a professor/writer/dad, full of depressed pomposity - and yet through sheer magnetism alone almost manages to make Bernard, if not sympathetic, at least understandable. Laura Linney, also playing a not entirely sympathetic self-absorbed writer who happens to be a parent, but more nurturing than Bernard, and Eisenberg (Roger Dodger) is perfectly cast as the older son, who is under the shadow and spell of his father, parroting many of Bernard's most atrociously cynical and dismissive lines until it slowly dawns on him that this might not be getting him anywhere - not with girls, nor other adults.
[One favorite example of such: Walt's telling his girlfriend that Metamorphosis has a "very Kafkaesque" ending. "Uh, yeah," she responds, "'cause it's written by Kafka." "Right."]
The film's, or Baumbach's heart, however, may lie with the youngest brother, played by Owen Kline, as an 11 year old just crying out for attention, sexually acting out in a fairly disturbing manner. Anna Paquin is also along as the provocative student of Bernard's who (mistake!) is invited to room with him. Her scenes with Daniels are a mite uncomfortable for any of us - including, surely, Daniels - who remember her playing his child in Fly Away Home. But one could argue this tension only adds to the level of inappropriateness of his come-ons. And let's not forget William Baldwin, who is a nice surprise as the laid-back tennis pro who calls everyone "my brother" - which seems pathetic at first, but becomes a sweet affectation to the younger son, a break from the cruelty of language spouting from the mouths of his parents.
What makes the script itself so revelatory is how it manages to teeter between bitter pathos and black comedy without ever losing empathy for any of these characters, no matter how horrid their behavior is at times. One of my favorite of many wonderfully squirmy scenes is when Bernard tags along on his son's date and convinces them they'd be better off seeing Blue Velvet than Short Circuit - a decision that would make sense for a film critic, or an intellectual, but not for a teen date. The resulting scene is brief but marvelous, if again painful, to witness. It also shows Bernard's utter narcissism, his inability to defer for the good of others.
The climax of the film, and the explanation of the titular symbolism, is no great revelation, but then, this isn't a film going huge - it plays to its strengths. The Squid and the Whale shows when people mutually reach a crossroads, some of them thrive and some of them quietly drown.