I think I've always been a fan of Noah Baumbach even though I've only seen two of his films up to this point (the utterly perfect "Frances Ha" and respectably idiosyncratic "Greenberg"). As a director, the man has such a distinct voice that I can Joe with the experience of watching his movies even if I don't necessarily like them (as I did with "Greenberg"). He excels at taking complex emotions and holding them up to scrutiny, simultaneously making them understandable while poking fun at their inherent absurdity. The same is true in his first film "The Squid and the Whale," a teasing tragi-comedy about middle class divorce. All the levity here comes from the characters and the intersection of their quirks. Jeff Daniels is pretentious writer of waning fame who grows bitter and jealous of his ex-wife's new literary success. His eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg) is a confused teen who idolizes him to the point of parroting his every thought. He pushes his other son away because of his unfaltering loyalty to his ex (Laura Linney) despite her repeated infidelities. These four players stick to their quirks and traits like glue and the unraveling family dynamic is as hilarious as it is crushingly relatable.
Where "The Squid and the Whale" fumbles though is in its shifting focus and haphazard conclusion. Throughout the first 45 minutes, the younger son and his grappling with the separation is the lens by which we view the action. However, this takes a dramatic 180 toward the end as we find out that Walt (the elder son) is the one really undergoing the most growth and change. It happens suddenly and isn't as earned as it seems to think it is. As it is, the running time caps out at an hour fifteen with another five minutes of credits. I never say this, but if the movie was just fifteen minutes longer, Walt's character arc could be better realized.
But that aside, this is a funny, moving, very real movie. Prime Baumbach and very deserving of its Best Original Screenplay nom. 8.3/10