Joan is anxious and rational, difficult to pin down, and on the verge of publishing her first story in the New Yorker. Bernard is an established novelist in a slump, and a pompous, petty monster whose ego swells in inverse proportion to his declining career. After the marriage collapses, Walt and Frank ricochet between apartments and allegiances, increasingly bewildered by their parents’ festering resentments and sexual indiscretions: Joan beds their tennis instructor (William Baldwin), Bernard pursues a nubile writing student (Anna Paquin). Neglected Frank guzzles beer, swears like a sailor, and sticks cashews up his nose; uptight Walt struggles to emulate his father, passing smug judgement on books he’s never read and playing inept head games on his adorable semi-girlfriend, Sophie (Halley Feiffer).
Baumbach, who co-wrote Wes Anderson’s ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’, shot his low-budget film à clef in just 23 days, but the cogent script and tight pacing make virtues of any production constraints. Fittingly for a story of four people all variously enthralled to their hormones, ‘The Squid and the Whale’ is a comedy of embarrassment, even of shame. Sexual urges express themselves in fumbling aggression or furtive solitude, and Baumbach mordantly renders the art house must-see of 1986, ‘Blue Velvet’, as a howlingly inappropriate date movie, especially when your father tags along. As Bernard, Daniels – part of a superb cast – captures a diminished man’s anguish and disenfranchisement yet relishes the character’s drolly outlandish self-regard. Baumbach is toughest, however, on his alter-ego. Walt is endearingly insufferable, projecting his pain on to his flighty but hardly villainous mother and so desperate to live up to his father’s standards that he’ll present Pink Floyd’s ‘Hey You’ at his school talent show and just hope that no one notices.
Filmed in vivid, steadily handheld Super 16, ‘The Squid and the Whale’ is a rueful remembrance leavened by spry verbal wit and artful brevity. Plangent and wry, the movie finds much of its magic in the closeness of farce and tragedy – the images seem to tremble with the friction between them.