Plot: Bernard (Jeff Daniels) was a once celebrated writer, but his career has been stagnant of late and in contrast to his own fall, his wife Joan (Laura Linney) is on the rise in the same field. He begrudges her sudden elevation as a writer, bitter about his own recent failures and he acts out in strange ways, such as beating her on the tennis court to reclaim his perceived dominance. As her marriage dissolves and she experiences her own success, Joan decides to seek greener pastures and divorce Bernard, which sends shock waves through their household. Oldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) sides with his father and tries to learn how this all happened, while younger son Frank (Owen Kline) uses his parents’ distracted attentions to explore some new horizons. As the family unravels, can anyone escape this madness intact or will the pressures be too much for any of them to handle?
Entertainment Value: This is a masterful picture, one that has a Wes Anderson style vibe at times, but feels grounded and authentic at the same time. The dysfunctional families of cinema are often over the top, but here it all seems rather plausible and when things are dialed up, it almost always makes sense. The emotions peak at times, but it is rooted in the characters and how the narrative has developed, rather than dysfunction for the sake of entertainment. The dialogue is intense and razor sharp, sometimes a little too cinematic perhaps, but it fits well enough, given the characters involved and how pretentious most of them are. The exchanges between characters are what drives The Squid and the Whale, as these conversations are rooted in the character development and push the narrative. The rapid fire dialogue also helps balance out the deliberate pace, so while the movie is on the slower side, it never feels drawn out and keeps your attention throughout. I can see how some viewers dislike the dialogue and find it to be unnatural, but I think it fits, given how high strung and pretentious these characters are and the social dynamics that surround them. The cast is also able to make the most of the material and thanks to the focus on characters, I think it all falls into place well and the movie is a pleasure to watch.
The Squid and the Whale is an ensemble piece and given the intertwined dynamic of the characters, one weak link could have doomed this one. The personal threads are so woven into each other, every performance had to be strong and thankfully, the cast assembled here was more than up to the task. Jeff Daniels embraces the inner darkness of his role, with a deep rooted bitterness that paints all of his interactions, especially when he shares scenes with Laura Linney. The two have the dysfunctional couple routine down to a science here, always coming through like a real, very troubled couple that has given into the bitterness. The family dynamic is crucial to the movie and that begins with the parents, so Daniels and Linney really build the foundation that allows The Squid and the Whale to work so well. The cast also includes Jesse Eisenberg, William Baldwin, Anna Paquin, and Owen Kline.