Not so with The Squid and the Whale, which actually features zero squids and half as many whales. Instead, this is the story of an extremely pretentious, preening and socially clueless college writing professor (Jeff Daniels) whose wife (Laura Linney) has decided that, after 18 years of listening to him talk about himself, it might best if he just continued his monologue in private.
Thus, they divorce, which is always funny, but doubly so when the divorce in question is scripted by Noah Baumbach. Writer/director Baumbach first came to prominence with Kicking and Screaming, about a group of boys who can't seem to leave college or say anything that isn't amusing. After that, he floundered a bit until he teamed up with Wes Anderson to write The Life Aquatic
With Steve Zissou , and now he seems to have reached full flower with the intensely realized characters and pitch-perfect dialogue in The Squid and the Whale.
Baumbach is helped greatly by four great performances. Foremost is Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Walt Berkman, eldest son in the family that's falling apart. Eisenberg is that rare breed of teen actor who can play a teenager. Usually, on shows like The Really Pretty Kids Who Live in Orange County and Hair Tree Hill, the teens seem to be playing Susan Lucci playing a model playing a teen. Eisenberg, on the other hand, understands that teen equals the alchemical combination of geeky awkwardness and cocky self-assuredness, with no trace of wise and soulful longing. This works perfectly for the character of Jesse, who, in a truly teen manner, worships his father even though his dad is clueless enough say things like, "I loved how that story evoked her vagina. Did you realize that was about her vagina?" when Jesse's impressionable young girlfriend is there. Except he doesn't use the word "vagina."
The clueless father, Bernard Berkman, is played by Jeff Daniels, who's so painfully spot-on in this. It's sort of like watching Ricky Gervais eat Steve Carell. Daniels affects a pomposity and extreme whiteness that allows him to deliver intensely artificial dialogue with the dorky naturalness of a middle-aged, book-smart dweeb who's so deep in the academy that he doesn't realize that real people don't spend all of their time trying to sound like they just walked out of a Philip Roth novel. Supposedly, the character of Bernard is based on Baumbach's actual father, critically celebrated and commercially ignored writer Jonathan Baumbach, who actually wrote, as a first line in his most recent novel, "When I reached 50, turned that mortal corner, I decided it was time to tell my own story unmediated by metaphorical disguise." Now imagine someone who talks like that all the time, and strangely believes that most people find that kind of verbiage to be evidence of depth and genius instead of annoying self-absorption and a tin-eared inability to understand the practical simplicity of speech. This is what Daniels presents with a painful and painfully funny delivery that perfectly evokes pity and disgust.
Of course, it's Noah Baumbach who supplies the dialogue that makes this work, so most of the credit goes to him, but he's backed up not only by Daniels and Eisenberg, but also by Linney, who's easily one of the two best actresses working today. In contrast to Daniels, Linney's character is perfectly at ease and natural, and she vanishes utterly into the role.
Most surprising is the performance of 13-year-old Owen Kline as the youngest son, Frank. Frank reacts to the divorce by getting drunk, smoking and smearing his semen on the walls and books of his junior high school. Kline plays this part with an evil shallowness that gives the character exactly the reality that normal TV and Hollywood representations of 13-year-olds must eschew in order to earn PG ratings and millions of box-office dollars.
These are things Squid and the Whale won't be getting, which is too bad, because it's way better than Big Budget Feelings Movie Starring Aging Starlet or Emotionfest 2005: Please OscarTM Me! Baumbach not only creates creepily perfect dialogue; his directorial eye is honed for exactly this kind of small drama. Spaces look old and lived in, and the camera receives odd placements that make everything a little too intimate and voyeuristic. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman's palette is rich in rotting browns and peeling, faded yellows, and the whole thing reeks of decay and eternal disappointment.
There's almost nothing bad I can say about The Squid and the Whale. It even does the impossible, which is to include a fart joke that is an integral part of the atmosphere, doesn't feel exploitive and is funny while simultaneously reminding us that farts are not, in fact, funny, but are rather disturbing and unwanted. And any film that can pull off a laudable fart joke clearly deserves your box-office dollars.