A lot of us have long thought that Jeff Daniels was an innocuous onscreen presence, and now it's time to take it all back. In the allegorically titled The Squid and the Whale a dark-comic portrayal of a high-IQ Brooklyn family in tatters Daniels positively revels in playing the innately destructive orca to onscreen wife Laura Linney's victimized, um, calamari.
Seldom has the viewing audience been so tempted to spend an entire movie with its middle finger extended toward a fictional character. That's the instantly identifiable loathing one feels for Daniels' Bernard Berkman, a self-enamored writing teacher whose authoring career has hit the skids. Unable to land a deal for his next volume, he compensates by belittling his wife's nascent publishing efforts and attempting to remake their two sons in his own fatuous image. Oldest son Walt (Roger Dodger's Jesse Eisenberg) is all too happy to oblige, parroting his dad's asinine opinions about books including ones Walt hasn't actually read and his Neanderthal attitudes toward women. (Bernard's idea of feminist poetry is that which references the author's "cunt.")
Walt's calamitous identification with Bernard intensifies when mom Joan (Linney) gets caught in an affair, bringing about a separation that allows the cuckolded dad to broadcast his resentment to his boys three times per week (and every other Thursday). Meanwhile, younger son Frank (Owen Kline) channels his hurt and confusion into tennis, public masturbation and a deepening love affair with spoken profanity.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming) intentionally peripheralizes many of the defining events of this allegedly autobiographical bust-up story betrayals and other transgressions are glimpsed out of the corner of one eye, just the way a helpless kid would see them as his happy home life headed toward a meltdown. At 80 minutes, the movie has no flab: Scenes only last long enough to provide specific evidence that the Berkmans' overall predicament is as realistic as its details are absurd. The laughs are constant, though always accompanied by a shudder.
The script goes easy on Joan, the patient mother whose only visible character flaw is chronic infidelity. But with a controlling cad like Bernard at home, who can blame her? The Squid and the Whale sounds a crystal-clear alarm against the danger that the sins of the father will visit themselves upon the son even in the heart of the so-called intelligentsia. That the movie can also be a hoot and a half means that someone might actually listen.