I can usually tell in the first 10 to 15 minutes of a movie whether it’ll be great or whether it’ll be horrible. It’s harder to tell when it’s a movie that’s in between. But The Squid and the Whale is one of those cases where the story, the characters, and the style is so poignant and detailed in just the first five minutes of the film, I was with no doubt sure this would be a great one.
Noah Baumbach’s honest and often funny screenplay feels so completely natural and pure that throughout the film, I had to remind myself I was watching a movie. There was a special way the writing, directing, and impeccable acting came together in this movie that just made this film something special. Films like this only come around once in a blue moon, and thank God Baumbach picked up just the right performers to bring this semi-autobiographical story to life.
The story revolves around an eccentric family in Brooklyn, Bernard and Joan Berkman, and their sons Walt and Frank. Joan and Bernard are both writers, Joan being more popular fiction and Bernard being a kind of literary snob struggling to get his new work published. He claims to be a fantastic writer, yet has settled into a teaching job and agents don’t want his work. Bernard comes to the realization that the two of them aren’t quite clicking anymore, as well as the realization that his wife is having an affair. They gently break the news to the kids. Walt is a teenager, and Frank is a young boy.
As kids often do in broken homes, the two boys choose parents to side with. Frank, played by Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline), has the most trouble dealing with the separation. He begins weeping as soon as his parents explain what is happening with them, only to be comforted by his mother (the flawless Laura Linney), whom he gravitates toward throughout the movie.
Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), the older of the two sons, seems to be more angry than sad, and immediately blames his mother for the end of the relationship, no doubt with a little help from Daddy. Walt idolizes his father in every way. He repeats to his friends his father’s opinions on books without reading them himself, he asks and takes his father’s advice about women and disregards the feelings he has of his own, and even listens to Bernard’s negative comments about Joan without caring what her side of the story is.
It’s a classic case of parents using their kids to hurt each other, but at the same time it’s not. Even though we’ve seen movies about families dealing with divorce hundreds of times, somehow this one seems to defy them all and come out swinging with a surprisingly fresh take on the heartbreaking ordeal, and it does it all without the melodramatic tear jerking or slapstick humor.
Baumbach has created a tour de force film that I’d call one of the best I’ve seen in a decade. For 81 minutes my eyes were glued to the screen. I couldn’t have looked away for a second even if I wanted to.
Jeff Daniels delivers what I think is the best performance of his career, and young actors Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline create characters so distinct and perspicuous, it feels wrong to even call it acting. Their line delivery feels so authentic; you think the words are their own. And Laura Linney, fantastic as always, is low-key here, in a role that, though dowdy, still plays to her strengths.
There are 50,000 ways I can think of that this movie could have gone wrong. There are potential clichés right and left, characters that you think might be stereotypical until the flawlessly written dialogue proves otherwise, and situations you’ve seen done a million times over, yet here, somehow, they seem brand new.
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