The young actors playing the boys turn in splendid performances. The younger one (Owen Kline) is just entering adolescence, while the older (Jesse Eisenberg) is trying vainly to escape it and become a man. Casting about for an identity, he sadly models himself on his father, aping his every literary affectation. When he finds himself in the company of a nice girl (Halley Feiffer), he tries to chat her up by discoursing on the difference between "The Great Gatsby" and "minor Fitzgerald," junk like "Tender Is the Night." Naturally he spurns his mother, the details of whose not-particularly-spectacular infidelities his father has shamelessly poured in his ears. With the puritanic certainty of the inexperienced, he knows she's filth.
Meanwhile, his younger brother is in the grips of his first, almost totally formless, erotic feelings. The object of his fantasies isn't a girl, but a crumpled-up photograph of some body part or other that he's ripped from a magazine and keeps by him at all times. Although his heart belongs to his mother, he's too helpless to take sides in his parents' struggles and so alternates between glumly accepting his lot and letting rip with strings of swear words whose meaning and application he hasn't quite mastered.
What's revelatory about the movie is its documentation of family intimacy, that centripetal force that can tie us inextricably even to thoroughly disagreeable characters. The terrible pressure brought on by the looming divorce and the (remote) possibility of reconciliation brings on a series of startling, completely persuasive confrontations that demonstrate, once again, that the thinnest line in the emotional realm can be the one between love and hate.
In less capable hands than Daniels', the role of the father could have become a stock villain. But Daniels masterfully conveys his character's utter lack of self-knowledge in a way that makes him an object of pity and dread in equal measure. He's capable of paying Kafka the highest compliment he can imagine by calling him "one of my predecessors," but also of fecklessly moaning in bewilderment, "I don't see myself as a person in this situation."
What also keeps the story from degenerating into mere melodrama is the script's and Laura Linney's ability to turn the long-suffering wife into something other than a martyr. She's a complicated creature, driven partly by ambition, and not quite able to balance her new-found sexual freedom with her duties to her children. When both she and Daniels dally with younger, not very responsibly chosen partners (William Baldwin and Anna Paquin), it's clear that Baumbach prefers the messiness of life to neat Hollywood clichés.
The storytelling and camera work in "The Squid and the Whale" have a jumpy, improvised feel, beautifully suited to the characters' constant state of disorientation. But in spite of its many dark moments, the film doesn't indulge in fashionable bleakness. Humor and irony are ever present. And toward the end, in a moment of wrenching transformation, one character moves toward something like a clear view of himself and his family. This relentlessly honest film ends on a note of acceptance and, possibly, even hope. (R) 88 min. **** S
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