Intellect and citified sophistication prove insufficient weapons for staving off despair in The Squid and the Whale, a black domestic comedy about the sudden eruption of the D-word in a bookish family living in the leafy, academic ghetto of Park Slope, Brooklyn.
The news that the Berkman parents Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) are splitting sends their two sons into fits of blatant and repressed anxiety. The existential panic of the youngest, 12-year-old mama's boy Frank (Owen Kline), is most clearly drawn. Frank engages in chronic public masturbation and sips beer in front of his bedroom mirror, like a post-traumatic Travis Bickle.
Director Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming, Mr. Jealousy) suggests that having Mama out of the picture creates ripples of masculine identity crisis throughout the group.
Dad moves across Prospect Park to a hovel of peeling paint and empty fridge. The alliances are quickly formed: Frank on Mom's side and Walt on Dad's.
While little Frankie commits the pubescent outrage of rubbing his seed on library books, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) emulates his father to a disturbing degree in an effort to emotionally distance himself from the pain that leaving his mother has surely caused him. Walt engages in the passive-aggressive womanizing that his father encourages, hiding his own insecurity behind a veneer of casual disdain for women.
Baumbach grew up in Brooklyn, the son of former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown and novelist Jonathan Baumbach. His semi-autobiographical dark comedy would, naturally, get the features of this esoteric world right: the narcissistic, elitist, cheapskate father with macho tendencies who aspires to jockdom but holds actual jocks in great disdain; a self-involved mother with no qualms about discussing her sex life with her sons; and two brothers whose incubation in great films and books can't save them from the ordinary torments of divorce.
Setting The Squid and the Whale in 1986 only compounds the characters' emotional pain with our fashion agony at the feathered hair, tight polo shirts and general high-nerdiness style of the moment.
Comedy in The Squid and the Whale is of the gut-churning Russian school variety: Laughter comes at the expense of someone else's agony. The only character who gets off easy is, tellingly, the most fluff-brained: a charming William Baldwin as the spacey Luke Wilson-esque tennis pro who keeps Mom's bed warm in her estranged husband's absence.
Despite its accurate assessment of the weird anxieties and damage that divorce creates in kids, there is something a little cold and unrewarding about Baumbach's rendition of his own past. Baumbach appears to have cross-pollinated his own memories of childhood neuroses with Wes Anderson's (Baumbach co-scripted Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and Anderson is a producer on The Squid and the Whale).
Baumbach's parents seem less his own than eerily familiar cinematic archetypes. Daniels' Bernard echoes the vain, preening, tennis-obsessed Gene Hackman in Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, and Mom is a sexually self-possessed, frosty-cool dame reminiscent of Anjelica Houston's Etheline Tenenbaum. Beyond derivative, what The Squid and the Whale often feels like is an Anderson film that has been filleted and its guts scooped out, leaving a hollow corpse behind. The absurdist costuming and set design and bizarre obsessive behaviors that Anderson uses so well to convey the intensity and weirdness of childhood and family becomes a more deadpan realism in The Squid and the Whale.
While Anderson's nut-job characters are charming and vulnerable in their flaws, there is something aloof and ultimately inconsequential in Baumbach's treatment of the Berkmans that does little to move the film beyond its "divorce sucks" epiphany. Baumbach keeps his story at a clinical distance. He renders his characters' vanities, anxieties and peculiarities deftly, but like the parents he criticizes, has not figured out a way to move beyond his own self-preserving intellectual remove.