Jeff Daniels’ bile-filled professor and has-been writer ranks as the coldest and least ingratiating in a distinguished line of semi-lovable bastards scripted by Noah Baumbach or his occasional collaborator Wes Anderson—including Gene Hackman’s irascible patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums and Bill Murray’s burnt-out oceanographer in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. In Baumbach’s remarkable new comedy-drama The Squid And The Whale, Daniels plays a profoundly bitter failure who rages joylessly against a world that long ago rejected him, and he futilely tries to assert his fading sense of superiority by dividing the world into intellectuals (who like books and interesting movies) and philistines (who don’t). There’s not a whole lot to like or admire about Daniels or most of the film’s compellingly flawed leads, yet Daniels maintains a certain dour magnetism throughout, and the film’s academically brilliant but emotionally challenged upper-middle-class New Yorkers are all the more fascinating for their many spiky edges and glaring faults. Baumbach can obviously see through his characters, with their crippling pretensions and noxious self-delusions, but his empathetic writing and directing engender a healthy affection for them anyway.
Produced by Anderson, Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical comedy-drama focuses on the Reagan-era split between falling author Daniels and rising writer Laura Linney, and how it affects the couple’s brainy progeny, precocious teen Jesse Eisenberg and troubled child Owen Kline. Having inherited many of Daniels’ most obnoxious qualities, especially his haughty academic elitism, Eisenberg sides with his father in the split. Meanwhile, his little brother throws in his lot with their good-hearted but philandering mother Linney, who infuriates Daniels further by taking up with a dopey tennis pro (a revelatory William Baldwin) who definitely falls on the philistine side of the divide.
Emotionally pitched somewhere between anguished sobs and bitter laughter, The Squid And The Whale is funny at times, but it never sacrifices verisimilitude for laughs. Eschewing the twee, sometimes precious stylization of Anderson’s movies, Baumbach creates scenes that feel ripped wholesale from the most agonizing moments of his young life. It’s an unflinchingly raw and honest look at a family splitting apart, and it seldom strikes an unconvincing or inauthentic note. Though it surveys rocky adolescent emotional terrain from the safe distance of adulthood, The Squid And The Whale still resonates with the sting of a fresh wound.