This movie is based on true events in the life of the movie’s screenwriter and director, Noah Baumbach. Before Jesse Eisenberg received his accolades for playing snotty wunderkind, Mark Zuckerberg, in “The Social Network,” he played Walt Berkman, angst- riddled teen in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Berkman’s parents go through a divorce, and this fact creates the main conflict.
Berkman’s parents are both writers. His father (played by Jeff Daniels) teaches writing at a local college while his mother (played by Laura Linney) is just getting her writing career off the ground. The parents quibble over petty things, like possession of the books and music albums in the separation, and what to feed the cat. The father uses Walt by telling him about his mother’s affair a few years earlier in order to manipulate Walt into hating her. Today, we call that parental alienation and child abuse.
In the beginning of the movie, Walt gives his father so much more credit than he deserves for both his writing and presence in the marriage. That the father is an egotistical has been and fraud, and the mother deferred her career until the children were at a more appropriate age, is beyond Walt’s teenage grasp for the moment.
Walt’s little brother, Frank (played by Owen Kline, son of Kevin Kline), is devastated by the divorce and sides with the mother. Frank acts out by drinking beer, rebelling and doing other crazy things at school, for which the parents are called into to speak with the principal. But the truth is that these boys were screwed up long before the divorce by a stifled, self-gratifying mother and a prima donna/diva/arrogant snob father (who calls those beneath him “Philistines” and criticizes women’s looks but who lives in a run-down house after the divorce). Even though Walt wins a talent contest at school, the victory is short lived, shallow and indicative of his deep, deep issues.
Eisenberg is best when he plays know-it-all-overblown-ego-damaged types. Maybe he will outgrow those characters some day. One of the Baldwin brothers plays a shallow tennis pro who calls his tennis students “my brother” and has a keen eye for Walt’s mom.
I did not find this movie touching. I was turned off by the profound emotional issues suffered by both Walt and Frank, and the self-absorbed nature of the parents. Their antics did not evoke compassion in me, but rather a desire to see some emotional and spiritual discipline instilled in all of them. So many words come to mind: disturbing, disillusionment, dysfunctional, disheartening. The only poignant thing about the movie is Walt’s childhood memory (also the title of the movie) of the squid and the whale, which evokes a time when he and his mother were close.
I do, however, recommend this movie to watch on a Sunday afternoon without any expectations. My daughter, Dylan, warns that if you watch this, you should brace yourself for a “shocking story of hardship and difficult feelings and uncomfortable situations.” That pretty much sums it up.
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