The Squid & The Whale Review

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In the mid-'80s, an upscale New York couple begin the painful process of divorce. While their parents struggle to remain civil, their elder son (Eisenberg) sides with his dad (Daniels), while the younger (Kline) moves in with mum (Linney), discovering the joys of booze and masturbation.


One of the reasons most often criticised by marriage counsellors for couples staying together is “for the sake of the children”. A better reason for avoiding the big D might be: “Because in 20 years my kids might make a movie about it and I’m unlikely to like what I see.” In the early 1980s Noah Baumbach’s parents — dad a successful novelist, mum an equally high-flying film critic — divorced. Now it’s payback time for screenwriter/director Noah (he directed Kicking And Screaming — not the Will Ferrell one — when he was just 26, and collaborated with pal Wes Anderson on the screenplay for The Life Aquatic). This account of a middle-class Manhattan couple splitting up and its effect on the two children is acutely observed, painful, funny and merciless. And he can’t claim that it isn’t autobiographical: he made Jeff Daniels, who plays the father, wear his dad’s old clothes.

While it’s perfectly attuned to the agonies of all concerned, Squid is full of cruelly witty touches: younger brother Frank’s (Kline) messy sexual awakening (a delight to him but not to his school, given his habit of smearing his masturbatory issue on the library books) takes place to the strains of Tangerine Dream’s score for contemporary rites-of-passage flick Risky Business; trying to impress a girl, elder sibling Walt (Eisenberg) apes his intellectual dad by announcing that The Metamorphosis is “Kafkaesque”. “It has to be, it’s by Kafka,”is the girl’s ego-demolishing response.

But at the heart of Baumbach’s film is Jeff Daniels’ astonishing performance as dad Bernard. He’s almost a monster; a man of untrammelled ego, he refers to Dickens as “one of my predecessors”. He’s belligerent, hideously competitive and mean (he makes Walt’s girlfriend pay for her food when he takes the kids out), but Daniels brilliantly leavens him slightly, providing moments where the bewildered writer reveals his confusion and pain.

At the end of all this viciously observed autobiography Baumbach has difficulty finding a neat ending. Unlike film romances, there’s no ‘wedding moment’ in a divorce-flick on which the camera can fade out; there are just wounded people attempting to accommodate themselves to the new realities. His choice, then, of an off-the-peg ‘character runs across New York to swelling music’ number — (see Thumbsucker, Manhattan, When Harry Met Sally etc.) — is serviceable, but only just. It’s a rare flaw in a otherwise blistering dissection of a divorce. Baumbach’s parents, though, might want to give the premiere a miss. After all, they know what happens.

Painful, funny and beautifully acted, by Jeff Daniels particularly, who gives a career-best performance.