‘The Squid and the Whale’ lives up to the hype

“I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one.”

-Steve Zissou, “The Life Aquatic”

There is little doubt that Noah Baumbach, who co-wrote last winter’s “The Life Aquatic” with wunderkind Wes Anderson, is the author of that line. In his smart, resonant new film “The Squid and the Whale,” writer-director Baumbach depicts the autobiographical account of a mother and father’s divorce from their two children’s perspective, examining the resulting rivalries, warped pretenses, and broken relations that arise with masterful skill.

In what may be his finest performance, Jeff Daniels plays the familial patriarch, Bernard Berkman, a Ph.D in literature whose one-hit-novel-fueled sense of success and importance has gradually given way to apparent mediocrity, leaving behind an empty sense of self-absorption and sad hubris. When his wife and fellow literary Ph.D, Joan (Laura Linney), begins to gain newfound recognition with her own writings, a bitter jealousy results and causes the fracture of their marriage.

Their two sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), are left in the wake, and, as the film’s tagline ironically observes, “Joint Custody Blows.” The film chronicles the interfamilial struggles that, just like the one between the titular sea creatures forever locked in combat in the American Museum of Natural History, are both gargantuan and fruitless, brutal and without real resolution.

Baumbach’s screenplay veers well away the traps of sentimentalism and melodrama into which so many other stories on “The Squid and the Whale’s” subject matter fall, giving it a hard and honest edge. While the screenplay’s thematics reverberate with some absurdist echoes from “The Life Aquatic” (when delivering Frank and Walt the news of the divorce, Bernard attempts to comfort the elder son with “Frank, it’s OK. I’ve got an elegant house across the park.”), Baumbach’s direction lends the film a voyeuristic, almost clinical quality that gives the audience an immediacy far removed from Anderson’s trademark spectacular formalism, leaving no barriers to shield the audience from the film’s emotional content.

Linney brings her usual fine-tuned abilities as Joan and the young supporting cast serves well here, but it is Daniels’ subtle, thoughtful performance that is a certain milestone in his career onscreen. Bernard Berkman is brought to life with graceful complexity, both hero and foe. His selfishness and inability to care about anyone’s viewpoint but his own remains just barely under the surface of the literary genius for whom Walt holds such tremendous reverence. The revelation to Walt that his father is not God but man captures that terrible yet compelling moment where perception and reality finally, fatally clash, a sort of fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, that pushes Walt forward and away from his earlier innocent ignorance.

“The Squid and the Whale” has already brought Baumbach awards for best direction and screenwriting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; as this is the beginning of Oscar season, one wouldn’t be surprised if the voters of the MPAA were to remember both Daniels and Baumbach for the Academy Award nominations in a few months’ time. The march of the summer blockbuster, with its talking super-jets and Michael Bay-fueled explosions, is over now, and in this young season of the studios’ award bait, “The Squid and the Whale” is intelligent cinema, a small-scaled epic that is not to be missed.

“The Squid and the Whale” opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 7.

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