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film review ***1/2: Dysfunction Gone Hilariously Wrong

...The Squid and the Whale... an Entertaining Story of a Family Divided

By Beckett W. Sterner

The Squid and the Whale

Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach

Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline

Rated R

Now Playing at Kendall Cinema

In a divorce, both parents compete in a popularity contest for their children’s love. Even if the children do believe the separation isn’t their fault, it’s impressive when joint custody agreements don’t end up being mandatory torture every half week. One part comedy, one part touching drama, and one part gross-out, “The Squid and the Whale” tells the tale of how two children choose between their parents as role models after the parents’ divorce.

Of course, if your father is hooking up with his 20-year-old student, and your mother can’t stop describing the endless list of affairs she’s had, choosing your preferred role model can be a challenge. Dysfunction runs deep in the Berkman family, and both parents, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney), seem to know what good parenting is as if they had seen it once at the movies and thought it was a nice idea. Bernard is an intellectual snob who has failed as a fiction writer just as Joan has successfully published her first book. The unapologetic, and often crass, anti-social behavior exhibited by the Berkmans produces hilarious lines and moments, and there’s something glorious about how firmly they march into the model of a dystopian family.

Having seen little in favor of the parents, we have to admit the two children have their own psychoses to contribute. Frank (Owen Kline), is a 10 or 11-year-old boy who sits around at home with his shirt off drinking beer like a 30-year-old bachelor, cursing like a true-blood sailor. In what makes for probably the most disgusting moments of the movie, Frank also must — how shall we say it — deal with his relative maturity as an 11-year-old. Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is the older son, in perhaps his upperclass high school years, who seems the most tragic character of the film in how he ditches his otherwise pleasant personality for his father’s boorish elitism.

It is for the best, then, that the popularity contest in the Berkman family features four evenly matched opponents. Daniels, Linney, Kline, and Eisenberg all have marvelously real characters, each with their own twitches. As Walt, Eisenberg adopts a slouch as personally unimpressive as that of any MIT student. Linney has perfected the apologetic, “I’m trying to be nice, but I really hate you” smile. With his height advantage and impressive beard, Daniels already has a head start on being an academic snob, but he has also mastered his trademark line, “Don’t be difficult.”

What saves “The Squid and the Whale” from being yet another child in the long line of family farces is how underneath the dysfunction, each character is real enough that we believe he can change. Becoming better people, and a family, is a genuine goal for the Berkmans, and it’s what keeps us from simply dismissing them as emotional lightweights. The film takes a clear-eyed perspective and doesn’t seek to whitewash anyone’s problems, an approach that is aided by camera angles taken from the perspectives of the characters and a more real feeling provided by occasional hand-held cinematography. The setting of the movie, in the 1980s, also helps remove any sense of coolness or style we might get lost in. (The “coolest” character in the film is probably Ivan, played by William Baldwin, a washed-up former tennis pro.)

Not for the faint-hearted, “The Squid and the Whale” will make you laugh, cringe, and empathize a bit more with the plight of a nuclear family gone critical. What keeps the film from true greatness is that it is neither a classic comedy nor a classic drama, but instead a good genre-crosser. In the Oscar popularity contest heading into the Christmas season, “The Squid and the Whale” may not be the front-runner, but it’s in the leading pack.