The Berkman family are led by their patriarch Bernard (Jeff Daniels), a proud intellectual who wishes to excel in all areas of his interest, and is confident he will pass this on to his two teenage sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline) who he would be happy to see follow in his footsteps. He ensures they have the same learning as he does, with the same opinions as he does, while their mother Joan (Laura Linney) is finding this a tug of war for the boys' affections for Bernard may be many things, but competitive is assuredly one of them. Take their tennis matches where he treats a little game with the kids as if it was the final of the U.S. Open, going as far as body shots towards his wife that he encourages Frank to imitate...
There was plenty of score settling in The Squid and the Whale, a film its writer and director Noah Baumbach described as an act of revenge against his parents, meaning this was an autobiographical tale that he had adapted into an extremely pointed comedy drama where his father in particular was given a savage portrayal of a self-centred, arrogant bully with delusions of grandeur. No punches were pulled, you could feel the venom practically dripping from the screen, which for many audiences made this an embarrassing experience to watch since most people's grievances with their families are not put out into such a public arena unless something has gone seriously, badly wrong within those relationships.
It was clear that was indeed the case here, and every time you started to feel pity for Bernard, he would do something that rendered him despicable, albeit in a comedy manner. That said, you could be forgiven for wondering if this sort of bitter character assassination was a healthy process: Baumbach had begun to go through therapy as he was writing this, and sure enough there was a scene where Walt visited a psychiatrist to talk through his issues and realised that there was barely a happy memory featuring his father in his mind, and that he had been selling his loving mother desperately short. Not that Joan was wholly blameless either, yet the impression was that the troubles in her marriage were born of Bernard's toxic personality.
In that most women would have wished to escape into the arms of another man if they had found themselves duped by romance into a union with the literature professor, as if Joan had bought into Bernard's aggressive self-regard just as his sons had and all three were paying the price. We join this crumbling unit as the marriage is breaking up and the parents announce their separation to their children. In typically deluded fashion, they believe they can work this out like civilised people when Bernard most blatantly is anything but, and while Walt sides with him, Frank seems to see through his father's bluster and prefers his mother: when Walt finds out that she had an affair while the marriage was still going, he becomes a little clone of his father's hypocrisy and takes it out on her without seeing this was a two-way street, in a disaster area.
The boys' personal lives and studying at school begin to suffer, with Frank developing disgusting habits (swearing is the least of it) and Walt getting a girlfriend but thanks to his dad's influence putting doubts in his mind that Sophie (Halley Feiffer) is not attractive enough and represents commitment Walt should shy away from, manages to sabotage his chances with a perfectly nice girl, though we may perceive that she was far better off without him if that's the attitude he was stuck with. Meanwhile Bernard in his new, barely decorated house hooks up with one of his students (Anna Paquin) and Joan starts seeing her sons' tennis coach Ivan (William Baldwin), much to the consternation of their increasingly all at sea offspring. If you appreciated cringe comedy, you would be under your seat with delight at much of The Squid and the Whale, it contained the sharp observation that stems from long-nurtured, real life grievances, and a lot of it was very funny in that uneasy way, but if you thought there was nothing worse than a creative using their work to air their dirty laundry in public, you would be well advised to steer clear. Music by Britta Phillips and Dean Wareham.