Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin
Rated R for Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Dialogue and Language
You wouldn't believe how many people are surprised that my parents are still together. With the divorce rate at 50%, I guess it makes sense. Whether or not this is something that should alarm me, I have yet to figure out.
"The Squid and the Whale" isn't the first film to deal frankly with divorce, nor will it be the last. But its no-frills, melodrama-free approach sets it apart from all the others. This is an independent film in the truest sense of the word; shot on digital video and made for a paltry sum of $1.5 million, this was never destined to be shown in the multiplex. That it is not entirely successful further cements this.
The Berkmans are separating. Bernard (Daniels) and Joan (Linney) will split custody of their two sons, Walt (Eisenberg) and Frank (Kline). Plus the cat. It sounds simple in theory but in practice it is anything but. Walt idolizes his father while Frank prefers his mother, but when secrets are spilled and experiences come to light, alliances shift back and forth. Meanwhile, Bernard is shacking up with one of his students (Paquin) while Joan is romancing Frank's tennis instructor (Baldwin).
That this movie is partly autobiographical doesn't surprise me. It is made with the kind of specificity that can really only be possible with first-hand knowledge. However, the film comes up short in its construction. The film moves so fast and with so little depth that it frequently feels like a film trailer rather than a feature film. Despite the valiant efforts from the actors, the characters feel half-developed and their motivations are often hazy.
This is the kind of low-budget, character-oriented movie where Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney can shine. Although neither has shown any problem in bigger budget movies, this is their bread and butter. Both are writers, which brought them together and, to an extent, tore them apart. Bernard is arrogant but hasn't been published in a long time while Joan is new to the game and experiencing success. These two know each other too well, and they know just how to hurt each other. But too little of this aspect of their relationship is explored.
As the kids, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline are fine, but not standout. Walt's worship of his father is too overplayed, but that's more of the fault of the writing rather than a knock against the future Mark Zuckerberg. Owen Kline (son of Kevin Kline) is also effective as Frank, although his character is so troubled that I genuinely feared for him. Neither child is coping well with the split, in fact; Walt is having relationship issues with his girlfriend (Halley Feiffer) while Frank turns to alcohol and acting out sexually. William Baldwin and Anna Paquin provide solid support.
Baumbach originally wrote the film for his good friend Wes Anderson to direct, but he turned it down and convinced Baumbach to make himself since it was so personal. I shudder to think of what Anderson's ego would have done with this material. As it is, it's a solid effort from a new director that signals better things to come in the future.