The strangely named The Squid and the Whale is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that tells the tale of two young boys dealing with their parents divorce in 1980s New York.
Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, a pompous would-be novelist (he describes Dickens as “one of my predecessors”) unable to cope with his wife’s (Linney) literary success and repeated affairs.
Eventually they split up and agree to share joint custody of the kids, news of which doesn’t please 12-year-old Frank – a masturbation addict with a penchant for hard liquor – who sides with his mum over the break-up.
Brother Walt (Eisenberg) is much more optimistic about the situation though as he shares his dad’s pompous literary pretensions – he tells his girlfriend that “The Metamorphosis is ‘Kafkaesque’”, to which she replies “It has to be, it’s by Kafka” – and blames his mum’s extra-marital affairs for the split.
Shot in just 23 days for a paltry $1.5 million, The Squid and the Whale is a tender, funny and moving tragi-comedy reminiscent of “The Life Aquatic” and “The Ice Storm”.
As for the extras, Baumbach twists the usual director’s talk-track format by setting his comments to a series of production stills taken from the film rather than the picture itself.
These images are split into 35 chapters, which are accompanied by a handy feature that allows you to flick quickly through a range of topics such
as: writing, casting, rehearsals, cinematography, production design, editing and tone.
Unlike most other DVDs, this commentary is also a lot shorter than the film itself, and at 50 minutes is a far more appealing prospect than most.
The other major selling point is a cheerful 40-minute question and answer session between Baumbach and writer Phillip Lopate recorded at the 2005 New York Film Festival. This interview features a more in-depth examination of the characters although, frustratingly, the director refuses to be drawn on how far his own life influenced the story - especially as Sony marketed the film as a “based on true events” account.
Director Noel Baumbach’s brilliant script (which was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) is full of the sort of real situations and dialogue normally neglected on the big screen - watch out in particular for Walt’s excruciating dinner date with his dad and girlfriend.
Similarly, the ending doesn’t follow the traditional Hollywood pattern of saccharine reconciliation but leaves things unanswered and uncertain, more in keeping with real life relationships.
Throw in a terrific performance from Daniels, who manages to elicit some sympathy for a thoroughly unlikeable character, and you have one of the best films of the year so far. And it’s all packed into a refreshingly brief 81 minutes.
Staring: Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg, Owen Kline, Halley Feiffer, Anna Paquin, William Baldwin
Directed by: Noel Baumbach
Extras: Audio commentary, Behind the scenes featurette, Interview with director Noah Baumbach and writer Philip Lopate