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With: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin
Written by: Noah Baumbach
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and language
Running Time: 80
Date: 01/01/2005

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Everything's All Write

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has come into his own. Previously he completed three unremarkable features (Kicking and Screaming, Highball and Mr. Jealousy) that would have sent most filmmakers running back to a normal, steady day job. But Mr. Baumbach persisted, writing pieces for The New Yorker, marrying Jennifer Jason Leigh and co-authoring the latest Wes Anderson film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He has returned to filmmaking with a new gusto, and The Squid and the Whale arrives as one of the most acutely observed views of family life in a great while.

Jeff Daniels leads this richly drawn pack as Bernard Berkman, a writer long past his prime, teaching classes and unpublished for too long. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) anoints her loveliness with annoying traits such as calling their children "pickle" and "chicken." Additionally, she has belatedly taken pen to paper and become a successful up-and-coming writer in the midst of her husband's slump. Their oldest son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) feels sympathy and a tad of hero-worship toward his father, quoting his father's opinions on the classic books without ever having read any himself. The younger Frank (Owen Kline) is more of a realist, siding with his mother.

When the parents decide on a split, as well as joint custody, each of the four family members goes through a crisis of conscience, manifesting itself in various bizarre, hilarious and heartbreaking ways. Joan has an affair with a tennis pro (a very funny William Baldwin), who insists on calling Frank "little brother," while Walt finds himself attracted to his father's latest swooning student (Anna Paquin).

The 36 year-old Baumbach sets the action in 1986 New York (the characters go to the movies, correctly opting to see Blue Velvet instead of Short Circuit), where he and his parents apparently lived out a similar situation. The filmmaker deftly avoids sentimentalizing or whitewashing, opting instead to find the painful core, and thereby the humor that naturally emits, from his family unit. He paints the film with a scuzzy coating, unafraid to revel in sweat and sudden, barked curse-words, yet a certain tenderness and nostalgia also comes through.

The Squid and the Whale deserves a raft of Oscar nominations -- not least of which for its entire cast and its Salinger-esque screenplay. Wes Anderson co-produced.

DVD Details: Sony Pictures Home Video's DVD comes with a Baumbach commentary track, a featurette, and a collection of trailers for 11 other Sony releases. The great essayist and cineaste Phillip Lopate (Totally, Tenderly, Tragically) interviews Baumbach during the 2005 New York Film Festival. The video runs 37 minutes. An insert comes with original reviews by David Denby (The New Yorker) and Kenneth Turan (the Los Angeles Times).

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