‘The Squid and the Whale’ is a well done tale we’ve seen all too many times

[rating=3]Starring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin, Halley Feiffer, Anna Paquin
Director(s): Noah Baumbach
Writer(s): Noah Baumbach

Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney in 'The Squid and the Whale'
Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney in ‘The Squid and the Whale’

Growing up with divorced parents, I suppose that gives me a different perspective on movies that deal with children whose parents separate. And to be honest, I’ve never encountered a film that even remotely reflected the kinds of experiences I had. The Squid and the Whale struck a cord with me, largely because it takes place during the early 1980s, but beyond that there wasn’t much I could relate to here.

It’s a well written film, with clearly defined characters, and features some terrific performances. Beyond that, however, there’s nothing new being offered. We’ve seen this story dozens of times in made-for-television dramas and any other film about children with whose parents suddenly decided to get divorced. Granted, the parents played by Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels are far more deceitful and self-obsessed than most, but the general situation isn’t new.

I suppose I thought the film would have something more to say. Perhaps not be completely unique, but have a different perspective. It really doesn’t, and while it is excellently done, I can’t say it delivered much that I’ll remember.

The film centers largely on Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg), the older of a pair of brothers whose parents get divorced. His father is Bernard (Daniels), a famous author whose career has fallen into hard times. His mother is Joan (Linney), whose first novel is about to be published. Both parents are manipulative in their own ways, and Walt instantly picks sides in the battle between the two, opting to live with his father. Meanwhile, his younger brother Frank (Owen Kline) acts out in bizarre ways, as he and Walt struggle to find their way through the confusing emotional rollercoaster that is divorce.

Taken as a whole, The Squid and the Whale is a strong film about divorce, and the effects it has not only on the parents but the children. It is well told, with some powerful moments, made all the better by the strong performances. Daniels is excellently manipulative as Bernard, serving as the film’s most obvious villain. Linney’s Joan is more covert in her issues, and while not as destructive as Bernard, dishes out her own brand of torture that is equally hurtful. In both cases each parent repeatedly uses the two young boys to punish the other parent. Eisenberg is also terrific, as is young Kline, whose part is a little over the top but still understandable.

Still, while it does a good job of telling its story, The Squid and the Whale didn’t bring anything new along with it. It tells a story we’ve seen dozens of times before really well, but isn’t terribly different than those other stories. You’re not likely going to take anything away from this film than you would if you watched 1946’sChild of Divorce, 1984’s Irreconcilable Differences or even 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire.

There was also one element of the film that really bothered me, because it really just doesn’t ring true in the slightest. In the film, Walt performs in a talent show. He sings “Hey You”, one of Pink Floyd’s most notable songs, then claims to have written it himself. And he wins the contest, because no one recognizes it. Floyd’s music was highly played in the early 1980s. Heck, it still is today. The fact that no one would recognize the song is just nonsense.

The DVD of The Squid and the Whale includes a director’s commentary from the film’s writer/director, Noah Baumbach. There is also a behind-the-scenes featurette and an interview with Baumbach and writer Phillip Lopate.

Rated: R
Run Time: 1 hr., 21 mins.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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