A review of “The Squid and the Whale” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for language and mature adult themes

Run Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

 

 

Jeff Daniels gives a tour-de-force performance in this searing family drama.

A strained marriage is at the core of the Berkman family’s very existence. Writer mom Joan (Laura Linney) struggles to make things right for the sake of her boys, twelve-year old Frank (Owen Kline) and sixteen-year old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) who worships the very ground his father walks on.

Hard to fathom since dad Bernard (Daniels) is a pompous, faded intellectual cum literature PhD vainly clinging to past triumphs to fortify his sagging ego.

The couple’s separation is inevitable. Joan and Bernard divvy up time with the boys and the cat and squabble over their vast library of books while assuring the boys that nothing will change. Nothing but the fact that mom is sleeping with Frank’s swinging tennis coach (a seamy William Baldwin) and dad is hitting on a barely legal female student (Anna Paquin).

Walt is caught between a rock and a hard place, determined to defend his floundering father by taking sides but desperate for the comfort and support his mom affords him.

The rift turns ugly as Bernard plays the boys like fiddles to get back at Joan for what he regards as emotional betrayal. The Berkman family is crashing and burning and it isn’t pretty.

Rising above the sting of divorce and the toll is takes on the kids is the astonishing gall of Bernard’s outrageous narcissism, masking a deep-seeded vulnerability and fear of failure. Daniels’ fierce grasp of his character’s blowsy bravado is nothing short of brilliant.

The collapse of this nuclear family is peppered with wry humor that nevertheless rubs raw. Compelling and painful and definitely worth a look.