We must at least give Noah Baumbach credit for trying to make a film like a big boy. Wes Anderson, his sometime collaborator, seems content to while away a promising career in a neverland of adolescent curios and middle-school creative-writing-class stories about studiously eccentric people (Rushmore) doing studiously unorthodox things (The Royal Tenenbaums) in a world where such studiousness won’t get you beaten up by the football team. Anderson and Baumbach recently worked together on the screenplay for The Life Aquatic, a visually diverting film that’s ultimately as substantive as a snow globe.
In The Squid and the Whale'a Sundance-conquering melodramedy about a divorce’s ravages on a Brooklyn family in 1986'Baumbach tries to put away such childish things. Instead of opening his private sketchbook or that dusty scrapbook, he takes out his journal and the family photo album to illustrate what made him a man clever enough to marry Jennifer Jason Leigh. In this thinly fictionalized story about two writers whose sons react rather poorly to their separation, Baumbach’s characters fight, curse, drink cheap beer, masturbate and recite florid dialogue that brings to mind John Irving rewriting Kramer vs. Kramer.
But inside all these admirably curated memories, Baumbach has forgotten to create something more entertaining than a cool malaise; the film is hollow and unfriendly from its first moments, and it simply never warms up. The writer-director convincingly tells small stories about the mundanities of a moderately unconventional upbringing, but Baumbach’s reality eventually feels much more sterile and unengaging than Anderson’s world of teacups, school plays and submarines.
And don’t forget wooden tennis rackets. That’s the sport favored by bearded Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), a novelist and teacher who’s having trouble finding an agent, let alone getting published. In the opening scene, he clobbers his wife, Joan (Laura Linney), with a forehand'moments after his 16-year-old son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) does the same during a doubles game with Frank, their 12-year-old (Owen Kline). Walt idolizes his father with an unconditional ardor you only see in memories, parroting all of Bernard’s views on women and literature while saying hurtful things to Joan, who’s been cheating on her blowhard husband while her own writing career gains steam. Baumbach waves the parents’ casual repulsiveness like a flag, seeming to believe it represents truth.
When the parents announce their separation and outline the ridiculous terms of their joint custody agreement, Walt jumps to his father’s defense, while Frank sides with their mother. The entire film is similarly demarcated; Walt’s gradual disillusionment with Bernard is obviously where we’re going, and Baumbach has no surprises up his sleeve. We can guess exactly what’s going to happen with the goofy tennis pro (William Baldwin) who takes a shine to Joan, as well as the college student (Anna Paquin) who takes a room in Bernard’s new house. The boys both get up to a few shenanigans'Walt claims he wrote the Pink Floyd song he plays in a talent show, and Frank does gross things at school'that are just variations on countless acting-out scenarios in poorer movies. The Squid and the Whale barely clocks in at 88 minutes, but this dearth of invention makes it seem much longer. Even the title, a metaphor for the loss of parental protection, feels ungainly and unnecessary.
Baumbach’s boosters will cite honesty as an excuse for being boring and repetitive, since life is often just that. But a coming-of-age movie should be more entertaining, more inventive and less reliant on one boy’s relatively small adolescent epiphany. Even Anderson, who co-produced Baumbach’s film, understands this; his childishly ambitious dreamers are often too precious to live, but they’re all extremely watchable. The Berkman family isn’t, and The Squid and the Whale is just about as entertaining as one of Bernard’s unpublishable novels.