In The Squid and the Whale, set in 1986, Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney play a pair of selfish writers/professors whose casual attitudes toward raising their two sons (Jesse Eisenberg as Baumbach's arrogant teenaged alter ego and Owen Kline as his lost-soul younger brother) prove to be shockingly ineffectual after they announce their divorce and are incapable of helping their children deal with the fallout.
Baumbach's film is fragmented in its editing and its storytelling, perhaps mirroring the fractured family whose agreement to split custody right down the middle is both comically and tragically short-sighted, but The Squid and the Whale is one of those films that's easier to admire than to actually enjoy.
The performances are practically perfect, the family feels absolutely real (as well they should, as the characters are all based on Baumbach's own relatives), and the filmmaking is fresh and uncompromised in its intent. Maybe it's just my own personal bias against pompous academics that kept me from caring for any of these characters, though I could empathize - from a distance - with the two boys' confused, defensive reactions to their parents' split. Growing up in an environment so permissive that they lack any sense of structure or morality, they don't have the tools to deal with the consequences of decisions as serious as divorce. And why should they, when their parents are so caught up in their own gargantuan egos that they are clueless as to how to lead their kids through such a mess?
The Squid and the Whale aptly points out that just because somebody is an intellectual, that doesn't make them smart. Still, as Joe Audience Member, I was unmoved by the film, and I find its critical acclaim somewhat undeserved.