Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) plays tennis with Ivan (William Baldwin); it is obvious the older man is trying to impress Ivan and his sons and wife, Joan (Laura Linney) with his skills, but it’s just as obvious he is slowing down.
On the way home, Bernard and Joan bicker as the boys listen from the back seat.
Bernard’s eldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) worships his father, a once published novelist turned university professor. The younger son, Frank (Owen Kline) barely understands the sophisticated commentary Walt generously shares with him about their father’s intellectual prowess and judgment of lesser literary figures as the two teens walk to school.
Things are tense at home, and Bernard tells the boys to come home on time for a family meeting. That evening, Bernard and Joan tell their children they are divorcing; Bernard tells them he is moving out and they will share custody of the boys evenly; every other night and alternate Thursdays.
The boys don’t want the divorce, and their lives swiftly disintegrate. Walt (whom Joan calls “Chicken” as if it is a term of endearment) learns to play and sing a song from Pink Floyd and passes it off as his own:
Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old, can you feel me?
Hey you, standing in the aisles
With itchy feet and fading smiles, can you feel me?
Hey you, don't help them to bury the light
Don't give in without a fight.
(http://home.mchsi.com/~ttint/heyyou.html for complete lyrics)
He wins $100 but when he is caught he must give it back and go for therapy.
Frank (whom Joan calls “Pickle”) starts acting out sexually to such an extent that the parents are called in to the school for a conference.
It is revealed that Joan has been having affairs for four years now; Bernard is jealous of her literary success and he only wants equal custody because it’s cheaper – he pays less child support that way. One of Bernard’s students, Lili (Anna Paquin) rents a room in his large, broken-down house and Bernard tries to seduce her; Walt walks in and is crushed. Meanwhile, Walt makes friends with a girl, but disses her because his father thinks she’s not good enough for Walt; not intellectual enough.
And so on and so forth. This unpretentious film about pretentious adults and children who try to imitate them was written and directed by Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming; The Life Aquatic) and is said to be based on his own experiences as a child. I think Baumbach has captured the ravages that divorce heaps on children in ways that would make this uncomfortable film mandatory viewing for marriage preparation classes. The Squid and the Whale may not be the worst that can happen to a family because of divorce, but it is a strong cautionary tale: look, be realistic – this is what can happen when communication breaks down, when partners are dishonest with each other, when they commit adultery, and when jealousy and competition further divide them.
Bernard seems to want to reconcile, but why? He seems like one of the children – he needs the marriage to work for his own survival, he doesn’t necessarily want it. Joan laughs at him, her lack of kindness breaking off any hope of the audience liking her.
I appreciate the main metaphors the film employs to reinforce the story and the sense of loss: the game of tennis; the song Hey You, Walt’s cry for help even before the divorce is announced; kids sense disintegration long before they become its victims and commence on their own spiral downwards; and finally the image of the squid and the whale fighting from Walt’s early childhood.
The film is billed as a comedy and a drama; I thought it was a tragedy. Extremely well-acted and I would think an awards contender for all the Berkman’s; the kids are superb. Baumbach should be acknowledged as well for his insightful writing and ability to evoke such nuanced performances from these actors about a very, very sad sign of our times.