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Familiar setup, grand result

The sensational 'Squid and the Whale' is an intimate narrative that flinches from nothing.

October 14, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

"The Squid and the Whale" has the power to break your heart and heal it again. Acutely observed, faultlessly acted, graced with piercing emotion and unsparing honesty, it will make you laugh because you can't bear to cry.

Winner of two top Sundance prizes (the dramatic directing and Waldo Salt screenwriting awards) for filmmaker Noah Baumbach, "Squid's" accomplishment is especially remarkable because its material is so familiar. "Squid's" roots are in youthful autobiography, in a family's divorce and a son's coming of age, usually the elephant's graveyard of independent cinema.

The film's success against these obstacles demonstrates that if you are gifted enough -- and if you have a superlative cast top-lined by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney -- your story can belong to everyone. Clear-eyed and intimate, a deeply felt narrative that flinches from nothing, "Squid" is a model of what independent filmmaking can achieve, even on a hectic 23-day shooting schedule and a $1.5-million budget.

With a title whose meaning and resonance become clear only at the close, "Squid's" great strength is that it is as perceptive as it is personal. It's the work of a skillful writer-director (this is Baumbach's third film, following 1995's wonderful "Kicking and Screaming" and 1998's "Mr. Jealousy") who has what might be called perfect emotional pitch.

"I try not to think of the movie conceptually, I start with characters and conversations I find interesting," Baumbach says of his process in the Newmarket Press edition of his screenplay. But it is Baumbach's sensitivity to nuances within those characters, his ability to capture the painful yet comic intricacies of troubled relationships, that brings to mind Tolstoy's epigram that "every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Convincingly set in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in 1986, "Squid's" particular family is introduced playing tennis. The sides that are chosen, father Bernard Berkman (Daniels) and 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) versus mother Joan Berkman (Linney) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), are the ones that will form off court as well.

In the ways casual sports contests have of revealing character, it's obvious before the match is over that the Berkman marriage is finishing. The pain of that dissolution will savage everyone's lives, destroying emotional moorings with indiscriminate ferocity.

Hit especially hard are the sons, who see their parents gradually change from comforting figures to seething adversaries, a switch that skewers their perceptions of the world and makes it especially difficult to hold on to a place in it.

The dominant member of the family is Bernard, a once-promising novelist turned college writing teacher. Spectacularly played by a full-bearded Daniels, Bernard is such an intense, complicated, frustrating figure it would take someone else's novel to do him complete justice. It is the gift of Daniels (who wears some of Baumbach's novelist father's clothes on-screen) to take on this impossible character on his own terms without condescension or special pleading.

The smartest and most self-absorbed man in any room, Bernard is filled with cocksure and prickly opinions about topics as varied as sports and literature. Someone who claims to have fired his agent because "he made a disparaging remark about the Knicks at a party," Daniels' Bernard lives so much in his head he has no idea what appropriate behavior is toward his family or the world. Coupled with his excellent cameo in "Good Night, and Good Luck," this is a performance that makes you wish there was even more of Daniels on contemporary screens.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, all this, Walt idolizes and idealizes his father, parroting his opinions and calling a story "Kafkaesque" even though he hasn't read it. A very earnest, very aware, very awkward boy, like his father in being more clueless than he realizes, Walt is beautifully played by Eisenberg, who held his own against Campbell Scott in "Roger Dodger." With a father like that as role model and advice giver, Walt's adolescence is headed for a bumpy landing.

Walt's more emotional younger brother, Frank, naturally sides with their mother, but that does not make his passage through this time any less torturous. Newcomer Kline (the son of Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline) does a beautiful job handling the complexities of this increasingly troubled young man. (Baumbach's real-life younger brother Nico has a cameo as one of Bernard's former students.)

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