The Squid and the Whale

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Samuel Goldwyn Films

4 stars

Many filmgoers will likely have an urge to compare Noah Baumbach’s new film, “The Squid and the Whale,” to Wes Anderson’s cult classic, “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The comparison isn’t entirely unjustified: both films chronicle the disintegration of elite New York City families headed by vain and delusional patriarchs. Also, Baumbach and Anderson are collaborators—Baumbach co-wrote Anderson’s 2004 film “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

Though thematically similar, the two films diverge greatly in style: Baumbach substitutes nouvelle vague grittiness for Anderson’s zany magical realism. As a result, “Squid” explores the darker elements of family crisis—despair, resentment, and resignation—where “Tenenbaums” was prevented from plumbing too deeply into these emotions by ensemble comedy conventions.

This is not to suggest that “Squid” isn’t a tremendously funny film. But its humor is rooted in the intractable narcissism and brutal selfishness of its protagonists. One laughs during “Squid” not out of delight, but in recognition of human stupidity at its apogee.

The worst offender in this respect is household head Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels): he is a novelist whose literary reputation is diminishing in inverse proportion to his sense of entitlement and self-worth. For example, when asked by his teenaged son whether or not to bother reading “The Metamorphosis” he replies: “Kafka was one of my predecessors.”

When his wife Joan (Laura Linney) embarks on a literary career, with greater success than he has enjoyed in decades, the latent tensions in their marriage are exposed and worsen until they precipitate divorce.

The emotional fallout from this decision, particularly for the couple’s sons Walt and Frank (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline respectively), is devastating. The film’s tagline—“Joint custody blows”—succinctly summarizes their feelings about the new family arrangement.

Jeff Daniels’ performance demands special recognition: he inhabits his character so completely that the word “acting” cannot rightly be used to describe his efforts—he simply is Bernard Berkman. His work in this film is in an entirely different league from his unfortunately career-defining role in “Dumb and Dumber.”

Laura Linney has been great in so many recent movies (“Kinsey,” “P.S.,” “Mystic River”) that it is tempting to take her for granted, but that would be a mistake. Her turn as a desperate housewife affects the audience so much that one forgives her myriad infidelities and an ill-advised romance with her son’s tennis instructor (Billy Baldwin).

Speaking of which, Billy Baldwin’s revelatory performance in this film nearly acquits him of the travesty that was “Fair Game” (apologies to Cindy Crawford). Apparently, Billy’s acting is good for something other than a punch line.

Jesse Eisenberg’s performance, however, is the glue that binds the movie’s varied elements into an affecting piece of cinema. Walt’s development as a character is the driving narrative force, and his confusion, frustration, and ultimate resignation comprise the bulk of the film’s substance.

Eisenberg’s method is a study in minimalism: he possesses the uncanny ability to make a seemingly blank expression convey great depths of emotion. In the movie’s closing minutes, Walt and his father share a heart-to-heart in a hospital room: Eisenberg communicates Walt’s shift from a doting to a profoundly disappointed son with the faintest alteration in voice and countenance. The camera is infrequently still in “Squid,” but when it does stop, it is usually on Eisenberg’s strangely affecting face.

Some will complain that “Squid” ends too abruptly. The film’s conclusion certainly offers nothing resembling closure—but life rarely gives closure either. Comedies, like “The Royal Tenenbaums,” are required to tie up all of their loose ends in the dénouement. Dramas are free to leave them unresolved, especially if the lack of resolution is truer to life­, which is certainly the case in the instance of divorce.

The final moments of “Squid” may feel amputated, but the phantom ache of the missing scenes is precisely the feeling with which the film should conclude.

—Staff writer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at