In writer-director Noah Baumbach’s very loosely semi-autobiographical account of his parent’s 1986 divorce in Park Slope, Brooklyn, 16 year-old “Walt” (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12 year-old “Frank” (Owen Kline), are caught in the middle.
The title aptly refers to an American Museum of Natural History exhibit in Manhattan in which a whale and squid are locked in combat, devouring each other, much like author and professor Bernard (Jeff Daniels), and budding writer mom Joan (Laura Linney).
Walt, struggling to find his identity, idolizes his father and opinions of literature unquestionably, passing off Pink Floyd lyrics as his own. Frank is more his mother’s son, interestingly handling his parent’s split and mother’s sexual dalliances in a somewhat troubling manner.
As in life, the separation intimates the complications that arise in divorce with an impressive amount of humor to temper the tenseness of the situation.
Walt’s realization of his father’s flaws develop and propel the film through the dissolution of marriage, its affects on children, and the challenges of raising kids through a divorce.
Jeff Daniels, usually relegated to supporting roles, is finally able to express a power and intensity in a performance that is quite possibly the best work he’s ever done. Laura Linney adds yet another amazing portrayal to her repertoire of intriguing character studies. Jesse Eisenberg (of Roger Dodger) and Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), very deftly create believable characters in a difficult situation. William Baldwin is hilarious as an impossibly daft tennis teacher and Anna Paquin shows great presence in come-hither student Lili.
The film’s more comic moments appear in Baumbach’s ridicule of the uber-academics at a time when man’s intelligence and school system bureaucracy were at the forefront, and it was chic to regularly cast judgment upon the fastidious, pompous educators who chose which “classics” were to be a part of the curriculum.
Baumbach co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson.
With a budget of 1.5 million, the raw, visceral, unprocessed feel of the film tends to leave some viewers breathless (an affect that Baumbach has said was deliberate), possibly the by-product of a 23-day shooting schedule.
The film is cerebral without being overtly clever, blending life’s beginnings, middles, and endings in a sometimes satirical but always honest fashion. The subject is every bit as relevant today as it was when the story took place, twenty years ago.