Head of the intellectual clan is creative writing professor and published author Bernard (Jeff Daniels), whose career as an acclaimed novelist is languishing--a fade made all the more apparent by the newfound success his wife Joan (Laura Linney) is having as a writer. Tension over their professional rivalry, along with other mundane conflicts, lead to the couple's decision to divorce, with shared custody of their sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 14-year-old Frank (Owen Kline).
Despite a cursory determination to be civil and respectful, the repressed resentment and anger of the life-shattering event keeps surfacing. Joan hides books under Frank's mattress to prevent Bernard from taking the treasured tomes in the separation, while Bernard calmly vents to a shocked Walt that he suspects Joan has had several extra-marital affairs.
The boys, meanwhile, already struggling with the challenges of adolescence, react to the strain of their parents' divorce in proto-Freudian fashion. The elder Walt seems to side with his father, whom he badly wants to impress, while family baby Frank tends to favor his mother. As a result, Walt follows his dad's misogynistic advice regarding a potential girlfriend (Halley Feiffer), at the same time falling for an ambitious college student (Anna Paquin), whom Bernard invites to stay at his house. Frank, on the other hand, becomes attached to his tennis instructor and mom's new boyfriend (William Baldwin). The middle-schooler, however, has also responded to his newfound pressures by developing the habit of masturbating and leaving his semen in public. From here, the story, eschewing conventional sentiment and an easy happy ending, follows the trajectory of the family's difficult moment to its open but moving conclusion.
Both as a director and scripter, Baumbach imbues his onscreen work with a unique vision that notably differs from his former writing partner and one of "Squid's" producers Wes Anderson. What the two filmmakers importantly share, however (especially in comparison to the latter's "The Royal Tenenbaums"), is a profound taste for the literary--not only evident in the films' mise-en-scene, with books lining the shelves of the families' respective homes, but also in their apparent homage to American writer J.D. Salinger. While the Tenenbaums are based on the Glass family of Salinger's short stories, the dominant metaphor of "The Squid and the Whale" refers to an exhibit of the sea creatures locked in battle at Central Park's Natural History Museum--a place that also figures importantly in Salinger's most famous book "The Catcher in the Rye." For both the novel's protagonist and "Squid's" Walt, their respective museum exhibits recall childhood memories at the same time representing the moment when the boys realize they're now leaving that childhood behind them.
Lovingly shot, elegantly written and sharply acted, "The Squid and the Whale" is an insightful presentation of everyday tragedy. Starring Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, William Baldwin and Anna Paquin. Directed and written by Noah Baumbach. Produced by Wes Anderson, Peter Newman, Charlie Corwin and Clara Markowicz. A Goldwyn release. Drama/Comedy. Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue and language. Running time: 81 min