Movie review: 'The Squid and the Whale'

4 stars (out of four)

I remember writhing around on the floor of my family room as a child, sobbing hysterically as I watched a VHS tape of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep duking it out in "Kramer vs. Kramer," their shattered marriage and custody battle far more frightening to me than any invisible monster under the bed.

Divorce, I knew even then, is scary stuff, especially for a kid whose whole identity is wrapped up in that idealized view of mom and dad as the fixers, the protectors, the expert providers of unconditional love.

Walt Berkman, the 16-year-old son of divorcing parents in Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale," is that kind of kid. And so was Baumbach.

Melding effortlessly the universal and the personal, the heavy and the droll, writer-director Baumbach returns to that fear, when in leafy, brainy, brownstony 1986 Park Slope, Brooklyn, his family-mom a film critic, dad a novelist-fell apart.

In his film, the Baumbachs are the Berkmans, with Jeff Daniels as Bernard, a self-absorbed egotist whose inability to get a book deal and fallback career in academia spur only more absorption and ego-his veiled insecurities and extroverted intellectualism soaring to hyperbolic heights, at the zenith of which he refers to Franz Kafka as a peer.

This happens while wife Joan's (Laura Linney) literary career is taking off: first a book deal, then a short story in the New Yorker, neither of which helps a floundering marriage.The two split, with Bernard moving to the other side of Prospect Park, which might as well be Staten Island to Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother Frank (Kevin Kline's son Owen). Reasons for the breakup are vague and deep: Joan hasn't been faithful, Bernard hasn't been present and, as in most failed marriages, love just petered out, though no one really knows why or when or how.

Facing the crumbling facade of parental perfection, Walt and Frank immediately fall along party lines: Walt, the burgeoning intellectual, with Bernard; Frank, the self-professed philistine, with Joan. The dueling alliances serve two needs: One, pin blame; two, take comfort with faith in at least one of these adult buffoons, because joint custody is shaky and kids need shelter.

Probably because Walt is modeled after Baumbach as a teen, the writer-director devotes his sharpest criticism and deepest emotion to the father-son dynamic.Walt adores Bernard. Idolizes him. Apes his every word and, most amusing and troubling, his unearned grandeur. When Bernard berates Walt's teachers for assigning "A Tale of Two Cities," Walt turns around and dismisses the book as "minor Dickens" without reading a page. And when, on Walt's uninformed recommendation, girlfriend Sophie reads Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and wants to discuss it, Walt keenly observes that the book is "very Kafkaesque." No doubt.

And yet, you get the sense that Walt chooses not to see through Bernard, because to poke holes in that veneer would leave him … where? Orphaned?

Certainly he can't side with mom. To Walt, Joan is minor Berkman, a lesser Bernard whose trampling on dad's writerly turf is both pitiful and unforgivable. But to Frank, whose outward reaction to his parents' split is a newfound taste for beer and public masturbation, Joan is a goddess.

Joan is also the least developed character of the film, acting more as the axis around whom everyone else spins. I can't decide if this is a flaw or a blessing, as it both leaves out a chunk of the Berkmans' story and focuses it.

Either way, Linney handles the thankless role with grace, grounding the men, pinning some fault on Joan and, consequently, shaving a bit of the edge off Bernard, who, though being a consummate cad, isn't Baumbach's villain.

He doesn't have one. Though memory often has a funny way of recalling only black and white, "The Squid and the Whale" isn't about heroes and villains. It's about the wrestling match, much like the fighting whale and squid diorama at the Museum of Natural History, which both terrified and fascinated Baumbach as a child.

Daniels gets this and never exaggerates Bernard, infusing every moment of selfishness with a tiny, abstract clue that, yes, Bernard knows the truth about himself. But he'll never tell. It is a tremendous performance, one that prevents us from affixing easy blame on any one Berkman.

As for Baumbach, I'm sure some 20 years later he's got plenty of blame to go around, as any of us do when it comes to our dysfunctional families. But this movie isn't a vanity project or a substitute for psychotherapy (though it was probably cheaper than a few years on the couch). I bet it worked out some demons-Baumbach outfitted Daniels in his dad's old blazer, and one can only assume he dreamed about tearing its elbow patch off once or twice-but Baumbach's agility at magnifying his own youthful arrogance hints at a greater self-awareness.

Like Baumbach, Walt seems a little closer to this consciousness by the end of "Squid and the Whale," and a little is really all a 16-year-old kid could hope to be. Does the boy become a man? Not quite. Eisenberg deftly resists taking any huge leaps and bounds. But by knocking Bernard down a few pegs, accepting him as a human being, both flawed and flowering, Walt grows up just enough-and, eventually, into Baumbach, a gifted filmmaker whose finest work here is just about perfect.

Baumbach's indie cred is pretty solid at this point, having collaborated with geek god Wes Anderson on "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and his upcoming "The Fantastic Mr. Fox." Writing for the highly stylized and whimsical Anderson must be some kind of kick for Baumbach because here he's got such a natural touch, grounded in a world far far away from Bill Murray's oceanographer-the real world.

Steering clear of phony melodrama and indie pretense, Baumbach captures a crisis in one family's life that, though it shakes the foundation, leaves all four Berkmans drifting toward highs and lows unknown, each of them only dimly aware that, no matter what the movies tell us, we never really come of age.

abenedikt@tribune.com

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'The Squid and the Whale'

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach; photographed by Robert Yeoman; edited by Tim Streeto; production designed by Anne Ross; music by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips; produced by Wes Anderson, Peter Newman, Charles Corwin and Clara Markowicz. A! Samuel Goldwyn Films and Sony Pictures release; opens Friday at Loews Pipers Alley and Evanston Cinearts theaters. Running time: 1:28. MPAA rating: R (strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and language).

Bernard Berkman - Jeff Daniels

Joan Berkman - Laura Linney

Walt Berkman - Jesse Eisenberg

Frank Berkman - Owen Kline

Ivan - William Baldwin

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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