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The Squid and the Whale

Misery loves company

No film that involves divorce and the dissolution of a family can legitimately be taken seriously unless it takes place during the early/mid 80s when divorce truly was chic. Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, written) smartly chooses to do just this with his semi-autobiographical film, The Squid and the Whale.

The Squid and the Whale follows the divorce of Bernard (brilliantly played by Jeff Daniels) and his wife Joan (Laura Linney) Berkman. While Bernard hasn't sold a novel in eons, Joan is finding success as a writer to the more than thinly veiled consternation of Bernard. In the middle of this marital strife are their two sons, Walt and Frank. What plays out is a coming of age story for both the parental units and their affected kids.

Naturally, Bernard and Joan separate and Walt and Frank find themselves pawns in an awkward joint custody battle. While Walt sides with his arrogant, pompous, narcissistic father, Frank aligns with his more emotionally accessible and warm mother. While this uncomfortable situation forces Walt and Frank to grow up quickly, it seems to catalyze mid-life crises for Bernard and Joan.

Bernard makes out with and gropes one of the coeds from the class he teaches. Joan canoodles with a dense, washed up tennis pro, Ivan (played to great comical effect by Bill Baldwin). Meanwhile, Frank and Walt grapple with issues of their own. The younger Frank (well played by Owen Kline) develops a drinking problem and an affinity for masturbating in public. Walt struggles with girls and wins a talent show with a Pink Floyd song he claims as his own.

Baumbach makes some excellent choices in casting the quirky Berkman clan. Jeff Daniels has historically played the affable everyman. In a bold move, Daniels steps out of his comfort zone and plays a washed up, self absorbed novelist with a bloated sense of self importance. Daniel's Bernard Berkman is truly one of the most entertaining assholes seen on screen this year and an Oscar worthy performance. Laura Linney also provides a solid performance as the confused and frustrated, Joan Berkman.

Rounding out the cast is Owen Kline as Frank and Jesse Eisenberg as Walt. Kline brings an emotional depth and complexity to Frank's role that is uncanny. Frank is one of the most world weary and emotionally screwed up 12-year olds ever seen on screen. Eisenberg seems to be doing his best Bernard Berkman imitation in playing Walt. Walt worships the ground Bernard walks on and views him as completely beyond reproach.

Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale is a disturbing, if not solidly entertaining look at the damage that can be wrought by having two narcissists as parents. While Walt and Frank are good kids, there's little question they'll be in therapy for the better part of their 20's and 30's. The real draw of The Squid and the Whale is Jeff Daniels in one of the best male performances this year and certainly one of the best of his career.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars