Movie Review: The Squid and the Whale

SquidWhaleThumbby Brad Nelson
This is by no means a “family” film even though it stars the charming Jeff Daniels and the wonderful Laura Linney who I remember most recently as playing Abigail Adams in the recent John Adams miniseries.

Although this movie is about the struggles of a fairly average American family, there’s a bit of adult content and plenty of bad language. Don’t necessarily watch this one with the kids. I often read the reviews at to get ideas for my own reviews. I ran across this one that was so good, I didn’t think I need even bother reviewing the movie myself. Here’s a piece of it:

“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.

That’s the gist of it. And I agree with others who say this is one of Jeff Daniels’ finest performances. Being a movie, the family problems are perhaps exaggerated and come in larger doses than one might expect in the real world. A movie’s not supposed to bore you. But they do capture a realism here, even if it is a rowdy realism at times that loves dropping plenty of f-bombs. At first it’s easy to laugh at these doofuses as they bungle their way through life…until you realize they aren’t perhaps doing all that much different than you or I have in our own lives.

What I don’t like about this movie is some of the over-the-top language, even given that this is supposedly a “hip” modern left-of-center family. What I do like is that, well, all families are a bit different and there are surely many who resemble this one. This isn’t a kitschy, saccharine, feel good, smarty pants, “too hip for their own good,” cliché-ridden movie. It’s anchored with realism through and through. And that allows one to forgive it a number of sins. 3 joint-custody-cats out of 5.

Additional: I’ve considered myself a Jeff Daniels fan since 1985’s The Purpose Rose of Cairo, which is a splendidly creative movie by Woody Allen. He cemented that reputation for the wholesome, likable, non-threatening, average American in the obscure, but quite watchable, Timescape. He further burnished his image as the sort of modern, libtardish parent in the quirky and imaginative Pleasantville which could be called the Freudian/libtard version of It’s a Wonderful Life. But I do think The Squid and the Whale is Daniels at his best, or at least the best I’ve seen from him. Daniels himself is a welcome addition to the pantheon of American actors. • (631 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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