Within the first few moments of Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical comedy-drama “The Squid and the Whale,” a sharp familial divide is instantly laid bare through a seemingly benign group outing. Literary has-been Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) teams up with his son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg, “Roger Dodger”) against his wife Joan (Laura Linney) and burgeoning teenage son Frank (newcomer Owen Kline) in a disarmingly competitive game of tennis. The muted anxiety of this first scene becomes a undertone of human interaction throughout Baumbach’s newest film. For in the Berkman family, no action is taken or comment spoken without an unmerciful heaping of selfishness, anger and confusion.
In a cozy household in mid ’80s Brooklyn, the Berkmans are, superficially at least, an exercise in refined middle-class intellectualism. Bernard and Joan are successful fiction writers and critics, while Walt yearns for future literary achievement underneath the tutelage of his father. After the separation of Bernard and Joan that opens the film, the Berkmans reveal their true selves. And frankly, they’re a mess.
Walt and Frank alternate days between their parents’ households, carrying loads of back-talk and acrimony. Aside from exploring the emotional toll of a family breaking up, “Squid and the Whale” is interested in the awkward pains of boys’ coming-of-age. Frank is a sexually confused, emotional wreck, combining his inner turmoil and anger at Bernard with a newfound penchant for masturbating in his school’s library. Walt, on the other hand, deals with his parents’ separation in a polarizing manner, admiring and mimicking his arrogant father to a frightening degree while exhibiting continuous spite toward his mother.
Although the boys’ growing pains occupy a central place in the film, they seem trivial next to the emotional havoc of their father. Bernard is one-sided personification of pretentious buffoonery, demanding adulation while displaying complete ignorance about raising his kids. Daniels does his best to instill Bernard with a sense of humanism, but the sheer foolishness of the character makes gaining our sympathy a pretty arduous task.
“The Squid and the Whale” is undoubtedly funny, capturing those realistic moments of human interaction that can be both painful and comedic. But its haphazard resolution and single-mindedly grating central character reveal a partial failure.
Although it isn’t the minor masterpiece it yearns to be, “The Squid and Whale” is a funny, touching, yet ultimately unsatisfying exploration of middle-class dysfunction. Just don’t be surprised when you walk out of the theater with your own hopes for a happy working family slightly soured.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars