Now Showing: The Squid and the Whale

The Squid and Whale, directed and written by Noah Baumbach, is an exquisitely funny movie and also chokingly sad. Misery and hilarity are often the best of partners. The film tells the  story of a marital breakup and is based on Baumbach's own family history. But, here, divorce is not really the topic but rather relations and speech patterns among a certain class of urban academic intellectuals.

Jeff Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, a professor of literature and writing, who had some success as a novelist early in his career but who, lately, has been unable to get anything published. Those who have never been a member of a college faculty may well think Berkman is a caricature. It would be good if it were so. Unfortunately, the colleges and universities of America are liberally sprinkled with Bernard Berkmans. They are people devoid of anything spontaneous or genuine. Everything to them is an academic cliché. They have no notion of real love, real sex, real literature, and they are, most tellingly of all, clueless about real education. But they pass as erudite men and women because they are incessantly ready with some academic bromide, such drivel as that Tale of Two Cities is lesser Dickens. Bernard Berkman and his compatriots are the reason George Bush is president of the United States. Legions of students, having encountered an empty, pompous  Berkman and knowing that he identified  himself with liberalism, have said to themselves, "My God! Anything is better than this."

Laura Linney as his long-suffering wife wins our sympathy only in contrast with Bernard. She's a bundle of foibles herself, but compared with what she has to put up with, she manages to appear almost noble. Ms. Linney is a fine actress, and lately she has made a specialty of playing women who dip into the dark side but, still, present an open and almost innocent face to the world.

The two brothers are played wonderfully by Jessie Eisenberg and Owen Kline. Eisenberg as the seventeen year old Walt Berkman gives a frightening performance as a type of young man increasingly inhabiting our high schools. Bright and neurotic in about equal degree, he leaves open the question of who he might eventually become. But whoever he is, he will doubtless require eons of therapy. His little brother Frank is achingly funny as a little boy moving into adolescence with scarcely anybody to help him out or even to try to understand what he's going through. In some ways, though, he seems to have a more solid psyche than his older brother and leaves us less worried about how he will eventually confront the world.

The Squid and the Whale has lots of dialogue which would have caused the ladies of an earlier generation to pull their aprons over their heads, and yet it too is as empty as the social psychology it represents. The movie, overall, is a study in emptiness, offering as substance only the desperate desire on the part of some of its characters to find ways partially to fill the void. If it doesn't stick in your mind it's hard to imagine what would.

If you want to know about the title, go see the film.

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