"The Squid and the Whale" is a sad--though at times very funny--look at what divorce does to one family in 1986 New York. Jeff Daniels plays the dad, a pompous, arrogant writer whose feelings of commercial failure (he teaches literature at a university) cause him to act intellectually superior to everyone he meets. Daniels is almost too good in this role; he reminded me way too much of people I actually know who are like this. He's the kind of guy who would be deadly at a dinner party, because there's no such thing as a casual or flippant remark in this guy's presence. He analyzes everything to death, and isn't content until everyone's opinion matches his own.
Laura Linney plays the wayward mom, blamed for the break up of the marriage by the dad because of a string of affairs she carries on. Her guilt keeps her from being able to discipline her sons, especially the oldest, who treats her horribly. Linney's role is smaller but in some ways much more complex than Daniels'. Her character has to take responsibility for her infidelity but still make the audience sympathize with her.
Caught in the middle of this mess are their two boys. The oldest quickly allies himself with his dad, and walks around regurgitating his father's opinions on every subject, rarely pausing to form any of his own. The younger son, more sensitive and tired of being intellectually brow beaten by his father and older brother, sticks closer to the mom. No one is totally to blame, yet no one is completely innocent either in this honest and frank film.
Noah Baumbach has made no secret of the fact that it is based on his own adolescent life, and it has that confessional feeling that movies in this genre frequently do. There are awkward moments when this doesn't totally work. The ending for one is rather ham-fisted, and a scene between the oldest son and his school therapist seemed awfully pat to me. But the acting and the sharp writing make up for these weaknesses, and the movie manages to be poignant without ever becoming maudlin or overly sentimental.
See it for the performances of Linney and especially Daniels, who has been proving his versatility as an actor over the last few years.