If it's true what Leo Tolstoy said—that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way—we can all count ourselves lucky, because at least we're not unhappy quite like the Berkmans.
In writer-director Noah Baumbach's autobiographical drama, the Berkmans are a painfully intellectual family living in mid-'80s Brooklyn. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is an author and writing teacher whose career has stagnated while his wife, Joan (Laura Linney), has begun to show promise as a writer herself. Unsurprisingly, this leads to some tension. A lot of tension.
Caught in the maelstrom are the two Berkman kids, 16-year-old Walt (Roger Dodger's Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline). The opening scene, in fact, is a family tennis match that sets the tone for the whole story: "Mom and me versus you and Dad," Frank tells his brother. Walt idolizes his dad to the point that he parrots Bernard's dismissals of books he hasn't read. Frank, battered into miniature rage by Walt and Bernard, takes his mother's side but vents his fury in other ways. There's something hysterically funny about seeing a tiny, solemn-faced kid say things like "Suck my dick, assman" and distribute gloppy evidence of his budding sexuality all over library bookshelves. Disturbing, but funny.
And that's true of the whole film. Though it contains plenty of hilarious moments (many of them courtesy of William Baldwin as jive-talking tennis pro Ivan), it's not an easy movie to watch. The first third of it feels like being forced to see someone else's parents fight at a slumber party. Bernard is such an unmitigated asshole that it becomes entertaining after a while, but the emotional carnage he inflicts on everyone around him—both intentionally and by bad example—is no laughing matter. As much of a jerk as he is, though, he's not alone. Joan, who in a lesser film might've been portrayed as the saintly wife, gradually reveals a history of blatant infidelity and a certain remoteness. Instead of taking sides, the kids come to realize that their parents are just people, as messed-up and imperfect as anyone else.
Baumbach, who co-wrote The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, has a knack for making brutal, cutting dialogue sound like the kind of thing real people would say. The writing in The Squid and the Whale is flawless, but somehow it never sounds fake or rehearsed. Much credit goes to the actors; Jeff Daniels in particular is a revelation. But mostly it's just that the script does not waste time. In about 80 minutes, you get to spend a lifetime with a uniquely unhappy family, then leave feeling grateful you didn't actually live through it yourself.
Rated R. Opens Friday, Nov. 4. Fox Tower.