Noah Baumbach's new film about divorce "The Squid and The Whale" is autobiographical. Just how close to home? At the press conference, Baumbach revealed that Jeff Daniels, who plays the father, Bernard Berkman, wore the clothes of the director's own father. The numerous first edition books on the crowded book shelves were Baumbach's parents books. The filmmaker also grew up in Brooklyn (where the film is set) and, like tormented young Walt, was a teenager in the late 1980s.
As far as reviews go, this opening is, of course, somewhat unfair. "The Squid and the Whale" is a a work of fiction and deserves to be viewed by such. It's a tribute to Baumbach that the authenticity of not only the place and the clothes, but also the dialogue--the intentional and unintentional cruelty of the divorcing parents--rings so true that it actually seems impossible for the stuff to be made up. Baumbach has an amazing eye and ear for detail.
His film, therefore, though funny and true, is often an uncomfortable, unpleasant ride. Family life, when it's done honestly, can reveal some ugly truths. When Bernard (Daniels) and Joan (always impressive: Laura Linney) decide to divorce after sixteen years of marriage, they make a lot of mistakes, including an ill advised joint custody arrangement that mandates the every-other-day shuffling of their two sons, teenage Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and younger Frank (Owen Cline), as well as the family cat.
The first half of "Squid and Whale" engrosses, entertains and revolts. Initially it seems as if arrogant Bernard (terrifically acted by Daniels,) has to take the bad parenting prize. But before long, Joan proves herself to be equally flawed. Walt and Frank both take sides, squaring off with opposite parents, but ultimately realize they have no safe place; like their parents, they too begin acting out. Walt plagiarizes a song at a talent show, and Frank smears the schools library books with his semen.
Herein lies the problem with autobiographic material: after the scene is set, the story lacks narrative drive. It's sad to say, but the plot goes nowhere, and the angst starts to feel heavy-handed, melodramatic.
The Berkmans certainly don't solve their problems in the course of the 88 minute film. The parents outside love interests (Anna Paquin as a sexy writing student and William Baldwin as tennis pro) provide much needed laughs—-and a relief from the claustrophobia. Halley Feiffer is lovely and awkward as Walt's first girlfriend. And yet, the minutes drag on. Life for the Berkmans goes from bad to worse until Walt (our earnest young Baumbach figure) literally bolts, revisiting the spot of an early, happy childhood memory.