Subtleties make for powerful ‘Squid ‘ Whale’

By Kahlen Burgwin U-WIRE

NORMAN, Okla. – After seeing Noah Baumbach’s name attached as a co-writer of the unwatchable “The Life Aquatic,” I planned on avoiding anything he did from then on, especially when I heard the title of his next project, “The Squid and the Whale.”

Thankfully, “Squid” could not be more different than “Aquatic.” With a lean script, a perfect cast and a keen eye for period detail, “The Squid and the Whale” is one of the year’s most entertaining and engaging films. It’s an amazing thing to love these characters so much when many of the things they do are so wrong.

Set in the early 1980s, “The Squid and the Whale” tells the tale of a family coping with divorce and the ensuing joint custody. After years of marriage the Berkmans are splitting up.

Bernard is an English professor and semi-successful novelist idolized by his older son, Walt and dismissed by his younger son, Frank, who is closer to their mother, Joan. Walt wants to blame Joan, a newly successful writer, claiming she is divorcing their father because he hasn’t achieved monetary success, a line fed directly to him by their father. The kids act out in different ways, Walt by cribbing some Pink Floyd and claiming it as his own and Frank by cursing a blue streak and telling his dad that when he grows up, he wants to be a club tennis pro like his coach Ivan.

For anyone whose parents divorced when they where younger, much of this will seem awfully familiar as the Berkmans try to argue in secret, yet still wake the kids with their shouting. In the early going, Baumbach strictly adheres to the ‘show don’t tell’ philosophy, and Bernard and Joan’s dying marriage is established with little more than sharp looks and off-screen arguments. It’s the strong performances from the entire ensemble that will burn this movie into the brain as a result of this method.

The kids, Walt and Frank, are played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen — son of Kevin — Kline. You may recognize Eisenberg from last year’s bomb “Cursed” but he cut his teeth in another indie hit, “Roger Dodger,” for which he received rave reviews.

Here Eisenberg has a tough job keeping the ultra-pretentious Walt likable. This is the kind of kid who lets go of his girlfriend’s hand when a classmate passes by and when called on it says, “Oh, I didn’t realize I did that.”

Eisenberg manages to convey just how lost Walt is without ever voicing it, allowing us to empathize with him.

Kline, as younger brother Frank, is a perfect foil for Walt. Cursing a blue streak and perfectly content, in fact happy, to disappoint their father, Kline provides some much needed, if at times over the top, comic relief.

As good as the kids are though, like divorce, this is all about the parents. Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels give the performances of their careers and easily two of the year’s best.

Linney’s understated work here is a prime example of less is more as she sheds tears in silence and drives home short lines with the tone of her voice and an expressive face. It’s her best work since “You Can Count on Me.”

Still, this is Jeff Daniels’ party. I can’t claim to have always been a Jeff Daniels “fan,” but he’s always been one of those actors that when you see his name in the opening credits, it always feels like a bonus. After “The Squid and the Whale,” he’s easily in my top five favorites.

His Bernard is an exquisitely realized monster, a man-child stuck between his own needs and those of his children. He is a super-intelligent idiot with no understanding of the kids he’s raised or the lives he’s poised to complicate or even destroy. The kind of guy who tells his kids that the bright side of the divorce is that they’ll have a ping-pong table.

Daniels infuses this quasi-villain with enough humanity that even after his final heartbreaking assault on Walt, we feel for him as if he and Joan were our own parents.