Writer and director Noah Baumbach has made three light films -- one so slight (1997's party-hopping Highball), it didn't see release till five years after its completion, and even then it snuck onto video-store shelves credited to a pseudonymous writer and director. There was nothing on his filmography -- not even his co-writing credit with Wes Anderson on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou -- to suggest Baumbach had within him something as treacherously funny and wrenchingly sad as The Squid and the Whale. Nothing, that is, except the story about his own parents' divorce, which serves as the basis for this movie that's a joy to behold till it becomes almost too painful to bear. And just like that, the maker of light movies gets heavy; you'd do well to keep from lifting it all on your own.
It begins as one would expect from the Brooklyn-bred son of a novelist (the equally unflinching and frank Jonathan Baumbach) and a film critic (the Village Voice's wonderful Georgia Brown): dry and wry, wearing its mean-spiritedness with a crooked smile. A family is playing tennis: On one side of the court stand a handsome mother named Joan and her youngest son, Frank; on the other, a bearded father named Bernard and his other boy, a gangly teenager named Walt. "Mom and me versus you and Dad," says twelve-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), a little boy forced into adulthood by parents who act like children. Frank lives on that fine line separating the cute from the creepy; he looks as though he learned to brood before he figured out how to crawl. He's a mama's boy, too -- not only a tennis partner, but also a soldier standing beside a commanding officer. It's an appropriate metaphor, because what follows is nothing short of a war.
Their little game of tennis soon devolves into something more ferocious: The marriage of Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan Berkman (Laura Linney) has been floundering for months, if not years. They can't stand each other: Joan loathes Bernard, a once-successful novelist turned professor now resting on crumbling laurels, because of his pretensions, his distance, his ennui. Bernard loathes Joan for her ambitions, her desire to become a writer when he's the writer in the family. Bernard is too pompous to let his marriage end -- too afraid to actually allow anyone to recognize he's a failure at one thing, lest he be discovered a failure at everything. But even he owns up to the inevitable: He and Joan split and use the children as battering rams to tear each other down.
Baumbach is clearly meant to be represented here by sixteen-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg); the movie is set in 1986, when he would have been that age. One need not know this to be enveloped by this sad, comic tale, though certainly it has that sting of a tale too personal to be manufactured. What's most significant about its autobiography is Baumbach's willingness to portray Walt as a fuck-up as shallow and scarred as his old man: Not only does Walt claim his father's thunderously pompous opinions as his own (about the "minor works" of Dickens, say) and insist Pink Floyd's "Hey You" is his original composition during a talent show, but he also keeps a cruel distance from his first true love, Sophie (Halley Feiffer), who he dismisses as unworthy of his affections. He's his father's son in every respect -- callow, cynical, even mean.
Early on, the movie has that lilt of the intellectual comedy that's too proud to make you giggle or guffaw, but would be eternally grateful for the knowing chuckle and raised eyebrow. You're amused by the casting of William Baldwin as Ivan, the tennis pro who refers to everyone as "my brutha"; surely, Baumbach's being ironic, infusing his highbrow cast with the star of the Cindy Crawford vehicle Fair Game. But the titters of condescension (the audience's, not the filmmaker's) evaporate quickly; this is no joke, after all. That becomes horrifyingly clear during the scenes in which Frank reveals himself a troubled young boy coming to terms with his sexuality in ways most inappropriate. Clearly, Bernard's a lousy role model -- he even takes up with one of his students, played by Anna Paquin. But Joan, too, is equally absent and self-consumed; her success is more important, perhaps, than the achievements of her two sons, who she has sent to live with their father in a desiccated house across the park.
The Squid and the Whale is one of those remarkable movies that erects no barrier between filmmaker and audience; it's a movie about intellectuals that's all heart. It leaves no moment of anguish unexamined, but doesn't analyze itself to death; the camera's too busy, after all, zooming from one minor tragedy to one major embarrassment to yet one more enormous revelation. It makes no excuses and offers no apologies. It is just what it is: a grown-up's version of his lousy fucking childhood, and not once does Baumbach ask for your sympathy, just your attention for 90 minutes that you're happy to spare.