Two people who have English degrees don’t seem to make the best couples.
Set in Brooklyn in 1986, this film captures with extraordinary immediacy the inner workings of the Berkmans. Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a once successful novelist and Joan (Laura Linney), have given up on their marriage, leaving their two sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), 16, and Frank (Owen Kline), 12, to grapple with what has become of the family.
When I think of films that have to do with divorce, I think of the classics like ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ or ‘War of the Roses’, to name a few. However, never in my right mind would I thought that a film by the same dude who brought me ‘Greenberg’ would be added to that list as well.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach is a guy who’s films I can never really get into but with his script here, he shows some real talent that deserves to be heard. His script is filled with a bunch of humor, sarcasm, and witty puns that actually take your mind off the fact that this flick is essentially about a family falling apart right in front of our eyes. It’s strange to be laughing at something like this but the way Baumbach is able to make every single situation in this flick, come out almost funnier than the last is what truly is what makes him such an inspired writer in the first place.
The script also has a bit of a sweet side to it, which at first, is a little too hard to see since everybody is mean and nasty, but by the end of the flick you can really start to see it come out. The film has characters that aren’t very likable but by the end, they start to understand their short-comings for what they are and that’s where the film made a difference for me. I actually started to care what was happening between the members of this family just through how they show their pain and anguish over this divorce and it works because you somehow get attached to these characters. None of these moments are ever shown in an obvious or melodramatic way either, which is always one step above the normal Hollywood comedies we get almost every weekend.
The one fall-back that I did have with this flick was that Baumbach seemed like he just felt the need to be a little strange and weird with this flick and it doesn’t work. The whole idea that the one kid, Walt, is playing ‘Hey You’ by Pink Floyd an calling it his own without his parents or many other people not knowing that it’s actually by them seemed a little far-fetched for me since it is a pretty big song, and I don’t know, Pink Floyd is a pretty big band. Then again, I guess these sophisticated types just stayed at home and listened to opera all day.
Another example about the weirdness of this script is the whole sub-plot about Frank and his angst. First of all, he’s drinking beer just about every night and he constantly jizzes in his hand and wipes it all over random stuff in school. OK, I get it, the kid is having a hard time but does he really need to wipe his semen everywhere in order to show how upset and confused he is. This seemed like something for a whole different movie and this was just a little too weird and strange to actually ring true at all.
Where the film excels perfectly act though, is the performances given by all four of these performers. Jeff Daniels is great as the snobby, know-it-all, Bernard. The guy thinks he’s right even when he’s terribly wrong and it’s just funny to watch him go about his day and say things that obviously make him seem like a total pompous asshole. Daniels is great in this role and easily can make us laugh but he’s also still likable in a way and he’s a pretty cool guy, even though he can be kind of a dick. Laura Linney is also pretty good as Joan. It’s a really hard character for her to play, considering she has to make an extremely unlikable character, likable in some way but she pulls it off and makes her character seem like a real person rather than just another one of those confused woman that want sympathy all the time.
Jesse Eisenberg is great in this role as Walt, playing the usual fast-talking nerd he plays in every flick but he still seems like a young kid, as he actually was when this film was filming. Much of the film actually revolves around him and just to watch him take his father’s advice all the time and practically hate his mom as well, seemed very realistic and made Walt an easily relate-able character since I would have probably acted the same way as well. Owen Kline, son of Kevin Kline, is also very good as Frank and it’s a real wonder as to why this kid hasn’t done much more with his acting since he gives a very realistic performance as a young kid, even if his story does get a little too wild. The one scene-stealer in this whole film though is William Baldwin as the total goon, Ivan, a guy who made me laugh just about every time just by calling everybody around him “my brother”. Alec probably could have pulled it off better though.
Consensus: Even though some moments don’t really ring true, The Squid and the Whale still features great writing that mixes drama and comedy perfectly, with realistic performances from everybody involved that add so much more to these almost unlikable characters.