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Friday, Dec. 8, 2006

Wading into a beached marriage's debris

Before I tell you what "The Squid And The Whale" is, I'd better tell you what it's not. First, despite the title, it's not a deep-sea documentary; the title refers to an exhibit in a NYC museum of natural history. Second, despite the presence of Wes Anderson as producer, this film is free of the fey quirkiness and hollow hipsterism that make his films such an empty experience.

The Squid And The Whale Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney in "The Squid And The Whale"

Director: Noah Baumbach
Running time: 81 minutes
Language: English
Now playing (Dec. 8, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Director Noah Baumbach has worked with Anderson before, cowriting "The Life Aquatic" and the forthcoming "The Fantastic Mr. Fox," but on "The Squid And The Whale" he drops the ironic distance to fashion a painfully personal -- and painfully funny -- portrait of a family going through a very messy divorce.

The film is set in New York City -- Brooklyn's Park Slope, to be precise -- in 1986, where 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) are suddenly confronted with the acrimonious breakup of their writer dad Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and aspiring-writer mom, Joan (Laura Linney). Presumably the fact that writer-director Baumbach grew up in the same neighborhood in the same time frame with literary-minded parents is not coincidental. The attention to embarrassing detail here is such that one gets the feeling that certain childhood demons are being purged by Baumbach.

Bernard and Joan are at each other's throats for various reasons: she's having an affair, but Bernard has been testy and bitter because her writing career is taking off -- with a piece being selected for The New Yorker -- while his remains stalled, unable to follow the success of his earlier work. Now he teaches at a local college, but his ego remains inflated; he refers to Kafka as "one of my predecessors," and when he seeks the ultimate insult to hurl at his wife, he says she was only interested in his "commercial success."

When Bernard finally moves out, he and Joan decide to each get the kids for half the week. The arrangement seems to be concerned less with the kids' welfare than Bernard and Joan's need not to "lose" in this battle for their children's affection. But, as a classmate of Walt's tells him, "joint custody blows." Soon the kids are split too, with Walt defending his father and aping his intellectual pretensions, while Frank sides with mom, refusing to stay at Bernard's trashed apartment.

Both kids act out: Walt by learning a Pink Floyd song on guitar, then telling everyone it's his own original composition; Frank by getting creepy, whacking off in the school library and starting to swear like a trooper. It's not just the kids, though: Joan starts dating the decidedly nonintellectual Ivan (William Baldwin), the boys' tennis coach, just to piss off Bernard, who is resentful of such "philistines." (And when Walt asks him what a philistine is, he replies, "You know, a guy who isn't interested in books and films and things.") Bernard, meanwhile, puts the moves on one of his students, Lili, played by Anna Paquin, who is the queen of jailbait temptress roles after "Hurlyburly," "25th Hour," and "Almost Famous."

The film builds from minor crisis to major crisis, but the arc of the story is less important than what it tells us about the people in it. Bernard is easily the funniest and most repellent character, and Daniels, buried behind a curmudgeonly beard, nails his passive-aggressive nature perfectly. In almost every scene with his kids you get the distinct impression that a decade down the road, they'll be sitting on a psychiatrist's couch somewhere saying that this is why they're all messed up. In a pingpong game with Frank, Bernard gets all juvenile, slamming the ball and trying way too hard to beat a boy half his size. When Walt finds a nice girlfriend at school, Bernard advises him sagely that, "It's good to play the field at your age." His smug, pompous air of intellectual superiority never breaks, no matter how desperate his life gets.

Eisenberg is equally fascinating as Walt, a boy who tries hard to emulate his father, only to learn the hard way how fallible his parents are. He's just beginning to learn about dating and sex and is fairly confused -- he blurts out to his girlfriend, naively but callously, "I wish you didn't have so many freckles" -- but the messages his parents are sending him only make things worse. Kline's Frank is a more opaque character, but Linney shines as Joan; in her hands, this is not the bitter wife role, but a woman sure of her own future and how to get it.

"The Squid And The Whale" will appeal to anyone who liked Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys" or Anderson's "Rushmore," but Baumbach's is the better film. He sifts through the debris of divorce and, by having a laugh at it, winds up discovering something that Woody Allen and probably David Lynch have known for a long time: Filmmaking sure beats the psychiatrist's couch.

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