Noah Baumbach’s third feature, a semi-autobiographical memoir about the breakup of his parents’ marriage, is a smart and funny film with a dramatically fraught subject—the aftermath of divorce in a talented, high-strung family of four.
In the film, the parents are both fiction writers with Ph.D.s, and their sons, teenaged Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and pre-adolescent Frank (Owen Kline), are a couple of live-wire fledglings scrambling to cope with their parents’ respective competitive natures. When the breakup comes, Frank sides with his mom Joan (Laura Linney) and Walt rages at his mother’s infidelities and not only sides with dad Bernard (Jeff Daniels), but also mirrors some of his father’s abrasive qualities.
In synopsis, The Squid and the Whale may sound depressing and overly-serious, but what Baumbach and company have actually put on the screen is both entertaining and incisive. The story is organized around the two kids’ points-of-view, and Walt’s in particular, but the calmly sardonic comedy that plays itself out in all this is a four-cornered story in which each of the main characters is an unstable bundle of sympathetic yearnings and tender self-deceptions.
Daniels is especially fine as a conflicted professorial sort—a sad, wounded man who seems at first to be the villain of the piece but who emerges gradually as something more humanly flawed than that would suggest.