By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
The Squid and the Whale
3 stars out of five
Dir: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin
The Squid and the Whale is writer-director Noah Baumbach's story of an upper middle-class family, living in the New York borough of Brooklyn in 1986 as it goes through a marriage breakup.
When Bernard and Joan Berkman, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney, respectively, announce to their teenage children, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) that they are getting divorced, each member of the family feels the effect of their decision--including the cat.
The couple inform the boys that, as part of a joint custody program, they will have to divide their week between their parents' houses, a far-from-satisfactory situation, especially as, in one of the few light-hearted moments to punctuate the dramatic and, at times, dark mood of the movie, they've made no provision for the family cat.
"We didn't discuss the cat," Bernard explains when the boys show concern for the pet's welfare.
The Squid and the Whale packs a lot into its 81 minutes, and the brevity of the film helps maintain the pace of the story, ensuring that the viewer's attention rarely strays from a story that is handled skillfully by a talented ensemble cast.
Bernard Berkman is an opinionated, slightly arrogant novelist, whose best work appears to be behind him, while his wife's literary career has just started to blossom with the publication of a story in The New Yorker.
He is ultracompetitive, to the point where even a hard-fought win at table tennis against young Frank ends with him saying, "It's hard to beat your father."
Yet this drive for success seems to have deserted him professionally, and even privately he comes across as a vacuous name-dropper, scraping a living as a college lecturer and attempting to live on past glories.
The relationships between the family members are one of the film's strong points, especially that between Walt, the eldest son, and his father.
Walt hero-worships him and would like to emulate him, yet the pretentiousness that he seems to have inherited from his father results in him recommending books or movies to his girlfriend that he has neither seen nor read. He even claims to have written the cover song that he sings in his school talent show.
This last act of deception earns him a trip to a psychiatrist, where he talks of his endearing memories of childhood, watching a favorite movie or trips to the American Museum of Natural History, both of which involve him and his mother when "we were pals."
It is from an exhibit in the museum that the movie's title is taken. The sculpture depicting a giant squid battling a sperm whale always scared him, and one gets the feeling that his family breakdown is equally as distressing for him.
Young Frank, meanwhile, has other problems. At school, the relief of his adolescent hormonal urges in the school library and on a girl's locker result in some embarrassing questions for his parents. At home, his anxiety at his physical resemblance to his father drives him to experiment with alcohol.
For all her flaws, such as a seeming propensity for extramarital affairs during 17 years of marriage, Linney's strong performance as Joan depicts her as the only family member to emerge positively from the situation, as she finds a new partner, a new career and a new direction.
The 1980s are accurately recreated by Baumbach, particularly in his use of film, giving the scenes a grainy appearance, and also in a tasteful soundtrack that not only draws on period artists such as the Cars, Bryan Adams and the Feelies but also older tracks by Bert Jansch, Loudon Wainwright III and John Philips.
Baumbach succeeds in keeping the plot taut and resists the temptation to get too sentimental in this drama, which will appeal to audiences who appreciate low-key, well-written films that avoid twee endings where everyone lives happily ever after. The acting is impressive and a potentially difficult subject is handled with wit and imagination.
The movie opens today.