The Squid And The Whale

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach's heavily autobiographical film about brothers coping with their parents' messy divorce derives a certain cachet from the fact that Baumbach's own parents are literary novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown. Sixteen-year-old Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) and his 12-year-old brother, Frank (Owen...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Filmmaker Noah Baumbach's heavily autobiographical film about brothers coping with their parents' messy divorce derives a certain cachet from the fact that Baumbach's own parents are literary novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown. Sixteen-year-old Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) and his 12-year-old brother, Frank (Owen Kline), are shattered when their parents, fledgling writer Joan (Laura Linney) and novelist-turned-creative writing professor Bernard (Jeff Daniels), whose literary star is on the wane, announce that they're divorcing after nearly 20 years of marriage. The morose Walt, whose status as a budding intellectual is predicated on echoing his father's pompous opinions about literature, film and the plague of philistines, blames Joan. Frank clings to his mother. Bernard and Joan work out a stunningly impractical joint-custody agreement that has the boys scuttling back and forth every other day between the family townhouse in Brooklyn's Park Slope, which Joan keeps, and Bernard's rundown fixer-upper on the wrong side of Prospect Park. "Is that even Brooklyn?" wails the teary Frank. While Bernard and Joan squabble over money, property and the propriety of their new relationships, Walt and Frank come apart at the seams. Walt sabotages his relationship with classmate Sophie (Halley Feiffer) by parroting (and emulating) his father's misogynistic ideas about women, and arrogantly passes off Pink Floyd's "Hey You" as his own composition at the school talent contest, a deception that can only end in humiliation. Frank starts sneaking drinks and masturbating in public, smearing the result on books in the school library and other students' lockers. You can justify the film's relentless myopia by claiming that it's told through Walt's eyes, and Walt can't be objective — his perception of his parents is limited by his experience. But Baumbach's shouldn't be: At the age of 35, his understanding should extend beyond, "Wow, my family was really messed up." But it doesn't. The great revelation he shares is that children view the world through a painfully narrow corridor of self-interest, and that for all Joan and Bernard's apparent maturity (they have children, a home and professional recognition), they're as childish as their children. Vivid, if not especially nuanced, performances by Linney, Daniels, Eisenberg and William Baldwin (as Joan's new boyfriend, who happens to be her sons' tennis instructor) don't compensate for a fundamentally unrewarding story. The title refers to a diorama at New York City's American Museum of Natural History that depicts a whale and a giant squid locked in mortal combat.

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  • Released: 2005
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Filmmaker Noah Baumbach's heavily autobiographical film about brothers coping with their parents' messy divorce derives a certain cachet from the fact that Baumbach's own parents are literary novelist Jonathan Baumbach and former Village Voice film critic… (more)

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