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Family dynamics from another place and time

October 16, 2005|CARINA CHOCANO | Chocano is a Times film critic. Contact her at calendar.letters

IN "The Squid and the Whale," Noah Baumbach's painfully funny, semiautobiographical coming-of-age story, Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play Bernard and Joan Berkman, a magnificently self-absorbed couple on the brink of divorce. The Berkmans are writers, which in itself could be taken as a reliable indicator of narcissism. But the Berkmans are a special case, as the movie's title suggests. "The Squid and the Whale" refers to a permanent exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, depicting a pair of giant marine monsters locked eternally in mortal combat. It's the kind of sight that makes an impression on a kid, especially one whose family serves metaphors for dinner.

Early in the film, Bernard and Joan gather their sons, 15-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), in the living room for their first and last "family conference," in which they announce that Bernard will be moving out of their Park Slope brownstone and that the boys will be shuttling between his place and their mother's every other day, cat in tow. Baumbach is exceptionally attuned to the indignities of the situation, and what makes his movie as funny as it is sad is that its brutal honesty emanates from a deep well of empathy and understanding.

But this has been much discussed already. What struck me as I watched it was the feeling that I was experiencing what I can describe only as an emotional period piece. It's not just the shock of watching Linney seated at her manual typewriter, a clunky corded phone at her side, that has the power to jar a generation only newly accepting of adulthood. (In the world of demographics, youth now officially ends at 34.) It's the contrast between family dynamics then and family dynamics now. Baumbach originally considered telling the story from the perspective of two brothers in their 30s looking back at their parents' divorce.

Instead, he took great care in re-creating 1986, going so far as to shoot in Super 16. As a result, "The Squid and the Whale" still feels like it accomplishes Baumbach's original idea. The film's main characters may be stuck in their teens, but the movie's core audience is probably hovering in the vicinity of Baumbach's age, 36. Bernard and Joan aren't just archetypes. They're visceral re-creations of the last gasps of '70s parenting, before the cult of child-rearing turned adulthood into an extended, self-conscious pedagogical exercise. Time capsules, in other words.

A singularly well-realized and poignant character, Bernard is a monster of egotism, whose despair at his floundering career blinds him to everything else. Armoring himself in vertiginous standards, he lashes out at all human activity that somehow does not revolve around him. Bernard is not above casually dismissing Walt's first girlfriend, Sophie (Halley Ffeiffer), as "not my type," then tagging along with them on a date, changing their movie plans and making her pay for her own dinner after monopolizing the conversation. Joan wins points simply by not being as bad as Bernard, but she's a little too detached from her sons' pain and focused on her writing and her new relationship with Frank's tennis instructor, Ivan (William Baldwin), to be let off the hook entirely.

And this is precisely what sets "The Squid and the Whale" apart from other child-of-divorce, coming-of-age dramas. It's specifically about coming of age during a period of baby-boomer ascendancy; when parents, in contrast to their parents, put themselves, their careers and desires first. Is there nostalgia involved for the days when adulthood was a reward for surviving childhood and not a resource to be harnessed in service of tots? Maybe, maybe not. Joan may be more "sympathetic," in the Hollywood sense of the word, but it's the monstrous Bernard, whose tortured narcissism all but suffocates anyone who comes near him, who earns our empathy, because it's thanks to Bernard that Walt becomes himself. Walt and Frank receive no treacly "life lessons" from Dad, but they do get an education.

Reduced, in a vain grab for approval, to parroting his father's pompous views on literature and imitating him in his contempt for women, Walt's entry into adulthood comes at the precise moment that he sees his father for whom he is -- a man inherently incapable of approving of anybody, since there's not nearly enough approval in the world to satisfy his own voracious need.

Bernard may be the ultimate bad dad. But Baumbach isn't interested in punishing -- or worse, redeeming -- him. He's interested in exploring the ways in which kids become adults at the moment they understand who their parents are and who they are in relation to them. When Walt gets his first view of this, he runs back to the museum, where he used to go with his mother as a kid before Frank was born and before Bernard began using him as a pawn in the marriage. The awe-inspiring struggle between larger-than-life monsters has a special resonance for Walt. And the moment is as poignant as it is liberating. Maybe I'm projecting (but then, what else are movies for?), but I read it as an homage to the days of helmet-free parenting, when reality was still allowed to be part of a child's world, and growing up was an act of will.

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