Noah Baumbach's startlingly vivid new film, "The Squid and the Whale," re-creates the '80s so seamlessly, you can practically smell the pesto. Shot on slightly grainy film stock and looking as if it's been sitting in a drawer for a couple of decades, the film takes place in 1986 Brooklyn, in a brownstone filled with white walls, brown corduroy couches and a very unhappy family. Two writers, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney), and their sons, teenage Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and preadolescent Frank (Owen Kline), are at war — and, as is so often the case with war, nobody wins.
As Bernard and Joan's separation and eventual divorce rages on, the boys choose up sides. Walt sympathizes with the bearded, posturing Bernard (who tells his son that his new home across the park is in "the filet of the neighborhood"). Frank is more drawn to his mother, who loses sympathy when she turns out to be having a casual affair with the boys' tennis pro, a laid-back fellow who calls everyone "my brother." (William Baldwin plays the pro, in a scene-stealing and very funny performance.)
But both boys — and the family cat — are caught in the crossfire, hauled back and forth across the park in a ridiculously complicated joint-custody arrangement. Bernard says he wants to see the boys because he loves them, Joan says it's because he doesn't want to pay child support, and we don't know who to believe.
At times "The Squid and the Whale" plays like a sort of Woody Allen nightmare; these are the sort of literate, hypereducated people we rarely see on movie screens. Bernard is a constant literary name-dropper ("That's Mailer's favorite of my books," he says, apropos of nothing), and Walt picks it up, thinking it makes him sound smart. "It's very Kafkaesque," he says of "The Metamorphosis," to a nice girl from school (Halley Feiffer) he's trying to impress. She nods helpfully. "'Cause it's written by Franz Kafka," she says, watching Walt deflate. "So it would have to be."
There's real pain in this story, in which the parents use their children as pawns in their own drama. Loosely based on Baumbach's own family (Walt, from whose point of view much of the film is told, is his counterpart), it has the messiness of real life, with uncombed hair and unanswered questions.
Nobody is magically redeemed here: Bernard stays resolutely unsympathetic throughout (in a tough-minded, splendid performance by Daniels), Joan remains deliberately vague, and Walt simply gazes at the squid-and-whale diorama in the Natural History Museum, haunted by the violence of the image. Growing up, it seems, will be the best revenge.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org