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Squid’ brings new twists to old story

Liz Byrum | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Tales of divorce and its effects on a family have been told and retold in Hollywood. However, in “The Squid and the Whale,” writer-director Noah Baumbach uses a model of his own childhood to put a new spin on an old story.

Baumbach, who has worked on films including “Kicking and Screaming” and “Mr. Jealousy,” sets the film in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, where he lived for a large part of the ’80s. At that time, his own parents, film critic Georgia Brown and novelist Jonathan Baumbach, went through a messy divorce.

Using his history as a starting point, Baumbach creates a story about the marriage and divorce of writer and Professor Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and aspiring writer Joan (Laura Linney).

The film opens at a time when Bernard’s career as a writer is faltering and he seems to care more about himself and his writing than he does about his wife or family. Even larger issues erupt when he finds out that Joan has had an excerpt from her new novel published in The New Yorker.

Daniels shines in this picture and becomes the character for which audience members might feel sorry, or by which they might just be disgusted. Linney’s character, on the other hand, breaks past the fact that she has been having affairs through the last four years of her marriage and appears to have a calm and innocence about her that her sons finally begin to recognize toward the end of the film.

Despite the talent of these actors and the complexity behind their roles, the focus of “The Squid and the Whale” revolves around the characters’ two children, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and his younger brother Frank (Owen Kline, son of actor Kevin Kline).

The film is a portrait of the effects parents have on their children, and the way children begin to realize how they can take the information their parents feed them – through conversations ranging from Dickens to desire – and decide for themselves what parts will benefit them in the future.

Each of the boys has issues regarding their parents’ sexuality and the tension caused by the divorce. When Joan begins to see Frank’s tennis instructor (played by Michael Baldwin) and Bernard moves in with one of his students (played by Anna Paquin), the accusations fly. What had started as a joint custody plan (one that even included the family cat in the weekly schedule) eventually turns into a battle of parent against parent, and the boys are forced to choose sides.

Eisenberg does an outstanding job of carrying his character through the confusion of his mother’s sexual betrayals of his father, his first inklings of romantic love and the realization that although his father may be an intellectual, not all the advice he gives Walt is worth taking. Although the objects of distraction may vary, Baumbach’s story of Walt’s discoveries and realizations still take on a relatable feel.

One of the comical parts of the film occurs when Walt attempts to have an intelligent conversation about Franz Kafka with his new girlfriend (Halley Feiffer). Trying to emulate his father’s knowledge of literature, he describes Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” as being “Kafkaesque,” to which the teenage girl replies, “It’s written by Franz Kafka. It has to be.”

Although it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes this movie a good one, it’s worth trying to figure out.

A successful cast, interesting setting and a complex storyline are just a few of the possibilities of what makes “The Squid and the Whale” a winner.