Wes Anderson reportedly created his 2001 "The Royal Tenenbaums" as a portrayal of New York as he imagined it, growing up in Texas, obsessed with the New Yorker. It’s a little eerie how much "The Squid and the Whale," the third film to be written and directed by Anderson’s "The Life Aquatic" co-writer Noah Baumbach (and based on Baumbach’s childhood), resembles Anderson’s film, stripped of all whimsy. But then, Baumbach actually does write for the New Yorker sometimes, and his mother was Georgia Brown, once a film critic at the Village Voice, so, pedigree-wise, he’s well-suited to produce a counterpart to Anderson’s golden-tinged world in which everyone is melancholy and has a book deal.
"The Squid and the Whale" also happens to be about the effects of a divorce on a family, particularly the children. From the opening scene, in which Joan Berkman (Laura Linney), the mother, is paired up with the younger son Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin) and forced into a ridiculously competitive family tennis match by her husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), we get a feel for how bad things have gotten. The scenes between Joan and Frank corrode like acid â€” they try to keep things quiet in front of the boys, but anger spills out despite their efforts, a situation worsened by the fact that both are writers, one finally coming into her own and one whose star has faded and who’s stewing in resentment. Walt, who idolizes his father, lays blame for his parents’ crumbling marriage entirely at his mother’s feet (facilitated by Bernard’s less-than-appropriate informing him of Joan’s affairs); Frank clings to his mother, but both boys struggle with what’s happening to them.
Jeff Daniels is going to get the lion’s share of critical attention for his performance as the scruffy, amoral, amusingly monstrous Bernard, but it’s Linney who makes the film with her loving and complicated portrait of a woman struggling between treating her sons like fair-minded fellow adults, and sheltering them like the children they both still are. Linney’s is the only performance that generates much warmth â€” the drama within the family never fails to ring true, but the other Berkmans are a little too sharp-edged, too guarded and strange, and often just too dislikable to form a connection to. The dialogue is wickedly clever and dead-on throughout, particularly for Bernard, whose fondness of certain phrases ("dense," "interesting" and "it’s the filet of ______") nears a conversational twitch.
At 88 minutes long, "The Squid and the Whale" moves along briskly â€” too briskly, perhaps, with the end leaping up a little abruptly. Combined with the sense of emotional remove, it’s sort of the autumn afternoon walk of films: it’s bracing and there’s much to admire, but in the end you’re glad to be done and back home, warming yourself up.
"The Squid and the Whale" opens in New York on October 5.