One of the funniest and yet at the same time most depressing films of the year, "The Squid and the Whale" looks at the true story of two boys dealing with the difficult divorce of their parents in the 1980's. What's funny about it? No matter how screwed up your family is, this family is guaranteed to make yours look like The Partridge's.
"The Squid and the Whale" stars Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline as Walt and Frank Berkman, two brothers, one in high school, the other in junior high, who struggle through the separation and divorce of their literary parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney. After affairs and verbal abuse, the two parents go their separate ways but, trying to keep the family together as much as they can, decide on joint custody - which means the boys literally have to alternate days. Walt blames his mother for the family's demise, but his anger is short-sided. Furthermore, his obsession with being just like his stuck-up father are damaging other relationships in his life, namely with his girlfriend who is beginning to treat just like his father treated his mother. Hank, entering puberty, is starting to show signs of isolation - drinking, masturbation (well, what he does with the results of masturbation) and so on and so forth. But yes, "The Squid and the Whale" is a comedy.
Like many movies like this, "Whale" is funny because of its quirky, indie feel, and just how screwed up the family is. Every character is well-written and flawed, but those flaws are funny. Walt tries to sound like his father and ends up coming off like an idiot. Just like his dad he makes a fair amount of social blunders. Hank is just screwed up all around. And then there's William Baldwin in a supporting role, who plays a goofy tennis coach in one of his finest and funniest performances to date. And, don't forget, "Metamorphosis" has to be Kafkaesque, because it was written by Kafka.
While funny, the movie is also very depressing, as each individual character's flaws push the family to the brink of destruction. After the divorce things only get worse as the boys take sides, generally for the wrong reasons, and the father does everything in his power to tear things apart further.
The movie, in addition to terrific writing, is gifted with exceptional acting. Eisenberg, who doesn't really look like a leading man at all, shows his best talent to date as an awkward and socially inept high school student who still has the chance to right himself, and Jeff Daniels is an absolutely scene stealer. Daniels definitely could be a candidate for acting nominations in the near future. Linney, while nothing special, is also quite good.
"The Squid and the Whale" is both funny and sad, a poignant portrayal of an ordinary family in turmoil. From the outside, their situations can oftentimes be humorous, but the film properly balances what is absurd with what is no laughing matter.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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