from Film Forum, 11/10/05

Criticizing everything he sees, including his children, Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels)—the lead character in Noah Baumbach's new film The Squid and the Whale—is a monstrous egomaniac.

To make things worse, he's also a teacher, whose feverish condemnation of cultural "Philistines" doesn't stop him from neglecting, resenting, and verbally abusing his wife Joan (Laura Linney). Nor does it stop him from flirting with a student who worships him (Anna Paquin). And for all of his apparent insight into human nature, his fierce competitiveness and judgmentalism—in everything from literature to Ping-Pong—sets a dangerous example for his two sons, Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline).

Walt, the eldest, admires his father's authoritative nature and emulates him. He's a brash, dishonest, sneering cynic-in-the-making, and he's all too eager to use and abuse women just like Dad does. Twelve-year-old Frank, on the other hand, is weary of his father's punishing expectations, and he's growing into a monster of a different order. Confused by the trials and changes of adolescence, traumatized by his parents' sexual affairs, and speaking in their expletive-laced language, Frank begins developing a variety of bad habits, including a sick form of vandalism at school. Only an affable tennis instructor (William Baldwin) seems likely to provide an alternate example for these young men—and that is depressing indeed.

The Squid and the Whale tells this dismaying story through Walt's perspective, drawing us into a realistic tale set in 1970s Brooklyn, where a house built on selfishness is collapsing on itself. Deftly fusing both comedy and tragedy, the film joins The Ice Storm, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (which Baumbach co-wrote with Wes Anderson) as one of the strongest recent features about the far-reaching consequences of adultery and divorce.

Jeff Daniels delivers his most accomplished performance in this film, one that should earn him more lead roles and the kind of credit he has long deserved. His comic timing makes Bernard's foolishness funny at times, but ultimately devastating. Laura Linney (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) gives a complex, heartfelt, and convincing performance here as a mother whose needs are so neglected, whose desires so reckless and uncontrolled, that she ignores the needs of her children and plunges into dissatisfying affairs. Jessie Eisenberg and Owen Kline are also utterly convincing, bringing Walt and Frank to life with such skill that it's easy to believe they're out there in the real world, lost souls still searching for counsel, guidance, and love. The saddest thing of all—there are so many young people just like them.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

"For all its unpleasantness, the film is a cautionary tale about an overly permissive upbringing and the fallout of divorce," writes Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service). "It is also mordantly funny, and poignant in its sad truths." But he adds a strong caution about this R-rated film: "The amoral behavior of the narcissistic, literary parents (though shown to have negative consequences) and the relentless barrage of expletives and open discussions of sexual matters—though realistic for some—will turn off many viewers."

Andrew Coffin (World) was turned off by the film, saying it "strips what sheen may still exist from divorce … Mr. Baumbach, viewers sense, is being brutally honest in Squid and must find the experience somehow cathartic. But justifying the time any of the rest of us would spend with such profoundly unsympathetic characters is a task far beyond this reviewer."

p>Yes, the Berkmans' behavior can be extremely unpleasant for viewers. Baumbach's story is told with autobiographical passion and searing candor, whether or not he ever experienced joint custody himself. But there are notes of compassion in the midst of the grief he communicates through the tone of his storytelling.

Because it candidly tells the truth about sin and consequences, The Squid and the Whale is not easy to recommend; it's far from a "feel-good" movie. But it is a powerfully well-made work of art that can help those who have had similar experiences see through the emotion and the damage to discern the roots of such evil, and hopefully choose a better path for our own relationships. It can provide a point of discussion with neighbors, who perhaps have not considered the impact of infidelity and parental neglect. Further, it can also help those of us who have never experienced such dysfunction to find compassion for those caught in similar storms.

Thus, I would argue that The Squid and the Whale is one of the best films of 2005, just as Ang Lee's The Ice Storm was one of the finest films of 1997. Mainstream reviewers seem to agree, hailing it as one of the best films ever made about divorce.