Jesse Eisenberg, The Squid and the Whale
Credit: The Squid and the Whale: James Hamilton

The Squid and the Whale may require explanation as a title — it refers to a famous permanent exhibit at New York’s American Museum of Natural History depicting warring sea creatures, the monstrous scale of which can singe a kid’s memory for life — but the metaphor is clear. In Noah Baumbach’s caustically funny, awfully sad, pitilessly autobiographical coming-of-age story, the narcissistic parents, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney), who ensnare their two sons in the bitterness of a dissolving marriage loom large and intractable as monsters themselves.

They are also specimens of New York City intelligentsia circa 1986, rarefied types who live in a Brooklyn brownstone, compete as writers (Joan’s career is on the up, Bernard’s isn’t), and take their sons to tennis lessons, which only adds to the saltiness the filmmaker sprinkles on his own wounds. Locating himself in the older-brother character (played by Roger Dodger‘s excellent Jesse Eisenberg) who, in his teenage unhappiness, mimics his father’s pomposity and blames his unfaithful mother, Baumbach lets no one off the hook, least of all himself.

The movie doesn’t so much go someplace dramatically as hang suspended, like the museum exhibit itself, and the abrupt nonconclusion is jarring. (The coda: And then I became a filmmaker.) But in hovering, The Squid and the Whale becomes its own realistic display of family entropy, as cautionary as it is educational.

2006 Oscar Nomination: Best Original Screenplay (Noah Baumbach)

The Squid and the Whale
  • Movie
  • 80 minutes