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on 29 July 2006
The Squid and the Whale is Noah Baumbach's autobiographical film about his parents' divorce. Beyond that I know nothing of the source material or of Baumbach's life - not even which of the two boys in the film represents him - but you don't need to, of course. And the truth of everything in the film beams through it so clearly that you would be in no doubt, anyway, that it came from real life.

Jeff Daniels gives a quietly barnstorming performance as Bernard (pronounced Ber-NARD) Berkman, a lazily bearded New York writer whose literary career is on the skids. His wife Joan (Laura Linney), meanwhile, has been published in the New Yorker and is about to get some good news about her first novel... Berkman is presented to us in toto in the opening scene, playing tennis with the family, the hilariously bitter competitive dad figure as he takes his son to one side and whispers "Try to get your mother's backhand. It's her weak point."

When the divorce is announced, along with joint custody ("Joint custody blows" - for some reason this has been changed on the UK DVD cover to 'joint custody sucks'), elder son Walt takes dad's side, accusing his mother of breaking up the family. He dates Sophie, a charming but unworldly girl who is taken in by his faux-intellectualism (another inheritance from his father), describing her favourite book as 'minor Fitzgerald,' bluffing a discussion and calling Metamorphosis 'Kafkaesque,' and faking authorship of Pink Floyd songs. Younger son Frank, aged - what? - ten or eleven, takes to masturbating and smearing his semen in public places, and to alcohol.

If all this makes it seem utterly grim, that could not be further from the truth. The film is not (or not only) uplifting in a Richard Yates way, for its honesty in portraying misery. It is bitterly brilliant, painfully funny, and with an almost non-stop series of great lines and scenes, mostly involving the self-involved Berkman Sr. One reviewer on imdb.com, who knew Jonathan Baumbach, the basis for Bernard Berkman, says that Daniels "amazingly, underplays the actual father."

Bernard: Joan, let me ask you something. All that work I did at the end of our marriage, making dinners, cleaning up, being more attentive. It never was going to make a difference, was it? You were leaving no matter what...

Joan: You never made a dinner.

Bernard: I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.

And the film is beautifully paced, too, with so many scenes cut short where other films would have played through until they became tiring or over-obvious. As a result, there is not a single boring moment in the entire film, which in fact comes in at well under 90 minutes.

It's quietly moving too, particularly in the central scene where son Walt explains to the psychotherapist that the only happy memory he can recall was when he was six years old, and doesn't involve his father. It also explains the title of the film, which comes back in the neat coda.

A vital film, and essential viewing.
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Bernard and Joan are an ordinary middle-class couple, unendearingly played by Daniels and Linney,and their relationship isn't so much on the skids as wrecked. It is immoderate to call such a situation as a marital split as tragic, they are so banal. But what I liked about this film was achieved through the wavering, uncertain situation in which their two boys, Walt and Frank, are placed by their parents' divorce. I found myself thinking, not by accident, that in the 40 years since I was at secondary school the world has turned upside down and, in a sense, we accept this: at my school of 1400 people ONE pair of boys were from a split home, and they were brothers. Now fully half would be in this pair's and these two boys' boat - to Stalin a statistic but it seems to be tragic. This is old-fashioned but I have seen too much 'collateral damage' and it is seen here too. Well acted by all, the important thing is not the unspectacular narrative but the way themes arise, such as the boys' conflicted loyalties, always somehow snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, like encountering famine in the midst of plenty. I sensed we are all living in an unhappy world. No answers in this film - we know there is no magic - but it makes one consider quite what a selfish thing divorce can seem to children, and the terrible price modern life exacts as we encounter misery where once was love and romance and desire. Or so it can seem The shibboleth of choice, of satisfaction. No longer. This quiet drama is well acted and absorbing; the modern world has misplaced something important, it is absent here too. Poignantly.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 September 2015
Set in the 1980s this is an uncompromising, insightful, brutal, tragic and comedic examination of the consequences of the bitter separation and divorce of a bohemian literary couple living in New York and the effect this has on their two sons. Jeff Daniels’ tour de force performance as the father, a smug, narcissistic, pompous, opinionated college academic writer is almost matched by Laura Linney’s quietly devastating turn as the dissatisfied novelist mother, finally deciding that the marriage has to end. There are parallels here with the 2012 film What Maisie Knew as both sets of parents appear to exhibit a disturbing selfishness, but here the screenplay is altogether more complex and possesses a devastating subtle dark acerbic humour punctuated with throwaway profanities . The confusion, frustration and anger felt by the two boys are exhibited in different ways and in the case of the younger boy by some particularly antisocial adolescent behaviour. However, it is Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as the older boy which is at the core of the film as his attitude towards his individual parents gradually changes as he realises that they are not paragons of virtue, but flawed individuals. Highly recommended.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 September 2006
Sometimes painful often very funny I enjoyed this film with its witty dialogue and satirizing of academic pretensions about English literature criticism. So many US films are geared to the teen market, but this was a film for people who have experienced some of the vicissitudes of relationships and family life. The characters were sympathetically portrayed. Nothing was black and white: every character had good and bad points-just like real-life iteractions between people. All the acting was excellent, especially the two sons.
I wouldn't rate this as one of the greatest films ever made, but it was very well worth buying, and viewing again.
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on 2 July 2006
Yes indeed this squid really leaves its mark! This is one of the really rare cases where I fully agree with all those frothy critics who drooled over this jewel of a film. Whilst the interview on the extras part of this dvd might prompt you to doubt the coherence of the writer/director Noah Baumbach, don't be in any doubt - this is a real miniature masterpiece.

Whether you're into psychology or not, this puts you right in the centre of this family and all its problems, which are are too common today (as in the '80s, when the story takes place). There are so many special moments, that it would be misleading to select any one for mention.

Equally impossible would be to select any one person for special mention among the crew. All the actors are incredibly convincing, as is the script etc.

This is a MEMORABLE WORK OF ART.
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on 30 March 2015
If what you want to see is a snobbish, boasting failure of a dad, a miserable mother, a son who tries to be a clone of his dad, and another son who is into public masturbation and cross-dressing - then this is the dvd for you.

There may be some redeeming features somewhere in the film, but I guess I missed them. The kids are appealing and good actors, and no doubt the parents are good actors, but why this script ? Still, I suppose everybody got paid.

There you are - I knew there was an up side to all this !
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on 1 July 2015
I caught up with this film nine years after it was made, it was recommended and I'd enjoyed Noah Baumbach's later When We Were Young.
I might have thought this equally good if it hadn't abruptly ended at what I estimated as 3/4 of the way through the film. It didn't, it really was 80 minutes long, but to someone closely following the story, it seemed as if the director had suddenly cried "Cut. All go home!" just as we might have been approaching some sort of climax or resolution. So we are cut off in limbo, as it were. A pity since there is some fine acting, very good writing, in this tale of what happens to two young sons of about 12 and 17 when their parents divorce.
You are never quite sure if the director is sending up the rather pompous parents, and you are not allowed to really like any of them, but that does not detract from the enjoyment of watching how the so-called 'best intentions' of these liberal parents are actually harming their young sons.
I was really enjoying it, when BANG! The End appeared on the screen. You have been warned.
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on 31 January 2007
This fine film is about family relationships and marital breakdown in a couple with two boys. The father (Jeff Daniels) is a successful writer who has been resting on his laurels for some years. He is full of lofty ideals and notions but we gradually learn that he is an insufferable intellectual snob, hypocrite and cheapskate. These unlovable traits have been allowed to grow because of his lack of self-knowledge - his self-satisfaction knows no bounds. His wife (Laura Linney) is a gentle and tolerant woman but years of marriage eventually drove her to have an affair. She also has literary aspirations.

The couple split and Jeff Daniels gets his own apartment. The boys have to divide their time between the two households on a strictly 50:50 basis (achieved by one day of the week being spent with each parent on alternate weeks). This, of course, is the idea of their father and no deviation is allowed. The older teen-age boy, who was formerly close to his mother, reacts badly to her affair and sides with his father. The sweet-natured younger boy favours his mum. He strongly resembles his mother in temperament, though at one point the two are looking at themselves in a mirror. The boy says he looks like her but she disagrees and says he is more like his father which he doesn't like. The teen-ager resembles his dad, treating his mother with harshness and his girlfriend with an insensitivity his father would be proud of.

Eventually, Jeff Daniels, with no moderating influence from his wife, reveals his true nature to his children, especially the older boy, who is the more vulnerable of the two.

The title comes from a gigantic model in the local natural history museum, showing a whale in mortal combat with a squid. The mother used to take the teen-ager there and he was too frightened to look at it. I suppose the allegorical message is that bad things have to be faced and the battle (problems between people) is never won or lost but remains, forever, in status quo.

This is a short film at just over 70 minutes and there is no true resolution but I was left wanting more. It is beautifully acted throughout and the screen play is sharply observed - we have all seen men like the father. The drama is lightened by regular doses of humour - the family cat is briefly transfered to the paternal flat and is then fed on 'generic' catfood (supermarket own-brand to us, I suppose). Used to its own brand, it goes on hunger strike.
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Bernard (Jeff Daniels) was once a successful novelist; now he's a stuffy, patronizing college professor. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) has been learning to write and has just published her first novel. And she's been having multiple love affairs for years. The two separate and the battle over the kids begins. Big brother Walt idolizes his father and hates his mother, but mostly just wants a girlfriend. 12-year old Frank sides with Mom and has some major problems of his own.

This quirky little film is definitely not the "comedy" it claims to be. It is drama all the way; a thought-provoking and sobering look at divorce. The four leads are uniformly brilliant. Jeff Daniels plays against type as a pompous windbag who likes to dominate people by being smarter than they are. Linney is also excellent playing an evolving wife and mother. The boys who play the sons really steal the show. They both show a lot of depth and maturity in very challenging roles (that are the reason for the R rating). The movie was filmed on location in Brooklyn and Manhattan and has a very real, urban feel to it. The final scene in the Natural History Museum is the perfect ending to a very satisfying movie.
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on 1 February 2008
I found this film quite deep and at points, quite uncomfortable watching. I felt it painted a real picture of what the two boys went through during their parents divorce from their own perspective more than focusing on the parent's own issues with one another. Both boys seem seriously affected by their parents separation and living different lives in different homes. You really feel for them as they go through the pains of finding out for themselves what to believe in and how to deal with their situation and get some perspective despite their opinionated, narrow minded Father. A good, interesting film. Very different and not what you'd call light entertainment.
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