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Sony Pictures

Official Site

Director: Noah Baumbach

Producers: Wes Anderson, Peter Newman, Charles Corwin, Clara Markowicz

Written by: Noah Baumbach

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin


I have a love-hate relationship with movies chronicling the lives and loves of Jewish New York smarty-pantses, largely because the bulk of my exposure is a real film stereotype, in full-blown neurotic mode, as presented by Woody Allen. Like Allen, writer-director Baumbach clearly loves NYC. But he gets a big thank-you for telling a story with characters who are not so much A Type. That does not, however, mean that these are average Joes and Janes. The Berkman family—mom Joan (Linney), dad Bernard (Daniels), and sons Walt (Eisenberg) and Frank (Kline)—is anything but.

This is a troubled, polarized family, with dad-worship on older son Walt’s part and a deep need to be worshipped on Bernard’s part. A post on IMDB, from someone who claims to have been a student of Jonathan Baumbach (the director’s dad, whom Bernard is modeled on), says that Baumbach Sr. is such a self-inflated prick that he’d likely view this film as an homage to him! The Bernard character is so over-the-top ridiculous that it’s a tribute to Jeff Daniels’ considerable skills that he makes Bernard watchable. Still, it’s a character so Out There you almost wish for the treatment that George Clooney employed in Good Night And Good Luck—he used real-life footage of Sen. McCarthy because an actor carrying on as McCarthy actually did would be dismissed as unbelievably exaggerated.

Like the two sons, you find yourself helplessly taking sides right away in this movie (though really, both parents’ rather needy tendency to “share” stuff about the marriage with their kids is tantamount to abuse). A marriage unravels and two misguided parents devise a custody scheme that is scrupulously equal… and nothing like fair. Baumbach includes some very right scenes of how kids react to family upheaval. Told that there will be a “family conference” after school, we watch Walt and Frank spend an entire day of dread, unable to think of anything else.

Baumbach makes very nice use of music cues throughout The Squid And The Whale (annoyingly named for a museum exhibit). A lullaby by famously conflicted father Loudon Wainwright (“Shut up and go to bed…”) plays in a scene at Bernard’s, and then when Frank goes to Joan’s house, we hear music by Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright’s ex.

The boys’ reactions to the fractured family are extreme, but both actors are up to the challenge. The older son, Walt, is such a pitifully fucked-up poser that it is a testament to Eisenberg’s (Roger Dodger) skills that he never laughs at his character, though he lets us laugh at him. These boys are not bright, especially Walt, who takes everything his dad says as gospel. And some very adult acting is required of Owen Kline, who is not much older than the 12-year-old character he plays, as Frank discovers his sexuality and descends into some unusual acting out. But don’t get me wrong—this movie is a comedy, a comedy of haplessness. It would be full of unbearably uncomfortable scenes if these guys weren’t such fools. In fact nearly every guy in the movie is some kind of fool. And though Joan is not presented as particularly admirable, she, and the other females in the movie, see the follies of males pretty clearly.

And they say divorce is better for kids than fighting, miserable parents?!?! Movie ends abruptly on Walt, who is less interesting than Frank. Where you come down on this film is probably going to depend a lot on whether you’re divorced, or your parents are divorced. I’ll bet Noah Baumbach’s parents feel like shit right about now…

—Roxanne Bogucka

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