That moment when children discover their parents aren’t perfect forms the core of “The Squid and the Whale,” writer-director Noah Baumbach’s semiautobiographical tale of two brothers coping with their parents’ divorce. Richly (if not entirely) fulfilling the promise of Baumbach’s indelible 1995 debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” pic makes up in strong performances and wry observation what it sometimes lacks in narrative drive. Result is a perceptive (and unexpectedly moving) portrait of lives in crisis that should capture the interest of indie distribs and help introduce the gifted Baumbach to a wider audience.
Comparisons between “Squid” and the work of Wes Anderson may prove inevitable given that Baumbach’s better-known contemporary is one of this pic’s producers, while Anderson’s longtime cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman shot it. Even Baumbach’s title carries the faint echo of Anderson’s recent “The Life Aquatic” (which Baumbach co-scripted).
But, beyond a surface fascination with absentee patriarchs and New York intellectual/academic life, the approaches of the two filmmakers could hardly be more different. Whereas Anderson’s films veer toward a cloying preciousness and too-cool-for-school hipsterism, Baumbach embraces an untidy humanism in which behavior and emotion bleed well outside of the coloring lines.
Set in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn circa 1986, “Squid” draws inspiration from Baumbach’s own family — he’s the son of the film critic Georgia Brown and the critic and novelist Jonathan Baumbach. Early scenes deftly sketch out the unique dilemmas faced by 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) as they grow up in the shadows cast by their writer parents: Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a once-celebrated novelist, and Joan (Laura Linney), a novelist herself whose rising career threatens to eclipse Bernard’s waning one.
In such a household, a dinner conversation about school reading assignments can quickly transform into a debate over the relative merit of Charles Dickens’ major works. And when Walt enters a school talent show, the pressure to succeed (both parent- and self-imposed) is so great that he passes off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as an original composition — and nearly gets away with it. Baumbach renders such moments with a deadpan grace and absolute lack of irony, which makes them recognizable and funny.
On one level, “Squid” is about the way smart, successful people can become hooked on the idea that their lives are somehow immune from the petty hangups that plague ordinary people. But when Bernard and Joan announce their separation, that fragile illusion is shattered, and hardest hit by the falling shards are Walt and Frank.
As “Squid” becomes a survey of four lives spun loose from their axes, it also becomes less of a straightforward narrative than a collection of moments depicting the ways its characters cope (or, rather, fail to) with their newfound chaos.
For Bernard, that means settling into a fixer-upper and renting a room to a precocious writing student (Anna Paquin). For Joan, it means falling into the arms of Frank’s tennis coach (William Baldwin in a marvelous bit of self reinvention).
Walt begins a haphazard ascension into manhood, courting a female classmate (Halley Feiffer), trying ever more to earn his father’s respect. Frank, meanwhile, becomes a chronic masturbator with an odd habit of depositing his semen in public places.
As with Baumbach’s charming “Mr. Jealousy” and little-seen “Highball” (on which he used a pseudonym), “The Squid” demonstrates the scripter-helmer’s razor-sharp character insights and his feel for life’s absurd, unpredictable rhythms.
He should also be commended for avoiding the temptation to resolve all (or even most) of pic’s conflicts with a series of happy endings. Yet it’s possible to feel, at the end of pic’s exceedingly brief running time, that “Squid” might have plunged even deeper into certain facets of the story, particularly where Joan is concerned.
Superbly cast, “Squid” is a feast of inspired performances, including from young Eisenberg (“Roger Dodger”) and Kline, who capture the pain, uncertainty and terror of adolescence with uncommon grace. In a career-best turn, Daniels, looking like a worn-out carpet, imbues the misanthropic, sometimes hateful Bernard with a tragic, haggard dignity — the aura of a man raging on the outside while crying on the inside.
Pic is also beautifully designed, from Yeoman’s lensing, which captures the earthy, saturated colors of old reversal-stock home movies, to Anne Ross’ lived-in production design, which fashions spaces as battered and worn as the characters that inhabit them.