The Squid and the Whale

It’s interesting that I saw “Bee Season” and “The Squid and the Whale” on the same day. Both depict four-member families in crisis, with focus placed on each scholarly parent and precocious child almost equally. The films have very different styles, yet both are similarly disingenuous: “Bee Season” is all slick-looking faux-enlightenment; “Squid and the Whale” is indie-film vulgarity disguised as progressivism. The latter’s ofttimes amusing audacity makes it the more enjoyable of the two, but neither film is as wise as it thinks it is.

“The Squid and the Whale” is the work of Noah Baumbach (writer of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” director/writer of the 1995 cult favorite “Kicking and Screaming”), and it is the semi-autobiographical story of an intellectual Brooklyn couple splitting up in the mid-1980s. We open on a tennis court, where Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), a renowned author and pompous literature professor, is teamed up with his 17-year-old son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) in a game against his wife Joan (Laura Linney), herself a writer, and his younger son Frank (Owen Kline). We wonder if this is a metaphor for how the battle lines will be drawn in the divorce — Dad and Walt vs. Mom and Frank — but we don’t wonder for long. Within minutes, the alliances indicated on the tennis court show themselves in daily life, too.

Bernard and Joan’s divorce is depicted as inevitable, the natural progression in the mid-’80s of couples who were married in the late ’60s. Bernard is pretentious and full of himself, yet not as successful a novelist as he was 15 years ago. Joan has been habitually unfaithful, a fact that barely disturbs Bernard. These are progressive academic types, after all. Getting worked up over things like affairs, or punishing your children for swearing like sailors, or discouraging them from having sex — that’s all old-fashioned. Why, that’s probably what Joan and Bernard’s parents would have done to THEM! Heaven forbid.

In their drive to be modern and liberal (I use the term according to its actual definition, not in the way that has become an insult in 21st-century political discourse), Bernard and Joan — especially Bernard — don’t do their children any favors. Frank, about 11 and beginning to experience adolescence, has been engaging in some rather disturbing sexual behavior at school; Walt has adopted his father’s piggish ideas about women, only deigning to date a plain-looking girl if he can mention to everyone that he KNOWS she’s plain-looking and that he could surely do better, a strategy endorsed by his father. (For a progressive thinker like Bernard, he is surprisingly neanderthal in his sexual attitudes.)

Bernard and Joan agree on joint custody, which means the boys shuttle back and forth every other day. Bernard lets one of his students (Anna Paquin) rent out a spare room, and there’s no mystery where THAT arrangement is going to lead; Joan, meanwhile, takes up with Frank’s tennis instructor, a dude-speaking moron named Ivan (William Baldwin). And the children are caught in the middle.

With a sense of humor that belies its pathos and an emphasis on Walt’s story (he is the character based on Baumbach), the film is more coming-of-age comedy than “Kramer vs. Kramer.” But Baumbach does occasionally veer from the “look how hip we are” crassness to bring the characters’ real feelings out: Bernard’s sense of betrayal, Frank’s momma’s-boy stagnation, Joan’s love for and disgust with Bernard, and Walt’s teenage impudence slowly dissolving into nostalgia for the days of his childhood, when he and his mother were close. All four leads are played exceptionally well. As Bernard, it has been said that this may be Jeff Daniels’ best-ever performance, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Much of the film is little more than all four family members behaving indecently toward one another — a realistic portrayal of divorce, perhaps, but one that makes it hard for us to like anyone involved. (It’s a credit to the actors that some likability emerges anyway.) Unfortunately, the film eventually gets mired in territory that has been well-trodden by indie coming-of-age comedies before it: the scenes, set to cool emo-rock, where the characters Realize Things and discover The Point Of It All. In this case, it involves the title characters, figures in a museum Walt often visited as a child. While Walt and his parents are having their epiphanies, we’re having one of our own: This film thinks it has more to say than it actually does. Ignoring its pretensions, however, it’s a solid, quirky piece of work.

B- (1 hr., 21 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, a little strong sexuality, some vulgar dialogue and imagery.)