Criticizing everything he sees, including his children, Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels)—the lead character in Noah Baumbach's new film The Squid and the Whale—is a monstrous egomaniac.

To make things worse, he's also a teacher, whose feverish condemnation of cultural "Philistines" doesn't stop him from neglecting, resenting, and verbally abusing his wife Joan (Laura Linney). Nor does it stop him from flirting with a student who worships him (Anna Paquin). And for all of his apparent insight into human nature, his fierce competitiveness and judgmentalism—in everything from literature to Ping-Pong—sets a dangerous example for his two sons, Walt and Frank (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline).

Walt, the eldest, admires his father's authoritative nature and emulates him. He's a brash, dishonest, sneering cynic-in-the-making, and he's all too eager to use and abuse women just like Dad does. Twelve-year-old Frank, on the other hand, is weary of his father's punishing expectations, and he's growing into a monster of a different order. Confused by the trials and changes of adolescence, traumatized by his parents' sexual affairs, and speaking in their expletive-laced language, Frank begins developing a variety of bad habits, including a sick form of vandalism at school. Only an affable tennis instructor (William Baldwin) seems likely to provide an alternate example for these young men—and that is depressing indeed.

The Squid and the Whale tells this dismaying story through Walt's perspective, drawing us into a realistic tale set in 1970s Brooklyn, where a house built on selfishness is collapsing on itself. Deftly fusing both comedy and tragedy, the film joins The Ice Storm, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life ...

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