One feels pretty easy predicting at the start of Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale - after a scene in which a family of four plays tennis and the father keeps hitting the ball so hard that the mother finally gives up in disgust - that divorce is not far away. Note to husbands: Do not try to hit spouse with tennis ball. Be especially wary of said aggressive behavior if that spouse is Laura Linney.
It's Park Slope, Brooklyn, circa 1986, and the Berkman family is splitting up at the mid-swing of the pendulum of the adults' professional lives. On the downswing is the father, Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a professor and once-celebrated writer. Linney plays the mother, Joan, a blossoming writer coming out from under Bernard's shadow. He's been distant and awful, she's had affairs and been generally resentful, so now Bernard is moving to a falling-down house on the far side of Prospect Park while she gets to keep the gorgeous brownstone. The kids, of course, get screwed, with split custody keeping them in one house for half the week and the other house for the rest. Ensuring that things will stay nice and dysfunctional, the kids choose sides, with teenaged Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) sticking with Bernard and even picking up his mannerisms, while younger Frank (Owen Kline) throws in with Joan.
As Walt and Frank shuttle back and forth, they both begin to unravel, not just from the shock of the divorce, but also seemingly as the result of years of ineffectual parenting. Frank starts exhibiting extremely disturbing behavior at school, no doubt fueled by all the alcohol he's drinking on the many times he's left to himself. Meanwhile Walt - the ostensible center of the film - starts flinging around the pseudo-intellectual pretensions he took wholesale from Bernard, even following his father's half-witted relationship advice. Being as Bernard's the kind of pompous blowhard who gives writers a bad name - he refers to Kafka as "one of my predecessors" - this results in some squirm-inducing moments with Walt, especially when he pontificates on books he hasn't read (calling The Metamorphosis "Kafka-esque" while drinking a wine cooler).
But keep in mind: it's a comedy, albeit one that lays open with scalding honesty the machinations of an ugly divorce in which practically nobody does the right thing, but a comedy nonetheless. In the hands of anybody but Baumbach, whose Brooklyn childhood provided the basis for The Squid and the Whale, this whole affair could easily have been just another tale of familiar familial dysfunction. And while there's dysfunction aplenty, Baumbach's adroit dialogue and unexpectedly evenhanded way of presenting even the worst behavior keeps the film from falling into pathos.
Baumbach's sublime 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming, a chronicle of postcollegiate ennui inspired by his Vassar years, was at the time (unfairly or not) slotted into the category of 1990s slacker irony. That film, and his more fantastical work with Wes Anderson (co-writing The Life Aquatic), would hardly auger the kind of unblinking clarity evidenced this time around; though it's clear that Squid's Walt is a younger, callower version of Josh Hamilton's Grover in Kicking and Screaming. Although the New York intelligentsia setting, the period detail, and the precociously smart Walt all smack heavily of The Royal Tenenbaums - Anderson's influence is heavy here, as he not only produced this film but Baumbach even used his regular cinematographer, Robert Yeoman - it's a much grimmer tale, without that film's magic and whimsy. Behind most every laugh is a wince.
Like Anderson, Baumbach shows a good eye for not just casting but how to give each actor just the right notes to hit to quickly establish their presence. Eisenberg and Kline are especially good as the collateral damage in this parental war, refusing to go for sympathetic mugging, even though they have ample material to do so. Linney plays it all with a good amount of savvy, acting with quietly exhausted irritation and not really opening up until near the end, when the reality of the situation comes snapping into focus. Daniels reminds us just how impressive he can be, armored with Bernard's petulant pride and ridiculous beard, like a mangy William Hurt on a three-day drunk. Even William Baldwin (playing Frank's tennis instructor) does great work, building a perfectly enjoyable role, as half-comic relief and half-reality check, out of little more than an awful haircut and a penchant for slipping "My brother" into every conversational crack.
It must said, however, that many will find the ending of The Squid and the Whale frustrating, as if Baumbach had simply stopped writing and tacked on only the most perfunctory of resolutions. An argument can be made that there's no tidy way to wrap up a story like this - families and their problems don't just end, after all - but given the care with which he treated the rest of his material, the way in which he ties everything off seems a bit arbitrary.
This is about three-fourths of one of the greatest films you will ever see.