Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale owes to its title the oft-featured exhibit at New York’s Museum of Natural History depicting the two sea creatures in the midst of battle. There in a suspended, jarringly life-size diorama, clasped to the ridge of a sperm whale’s mouth, a giant squid protrudes like a bulbous tumor.
Like everything else in the dysfunctional family at the center of the movie, in Baumbach’s film, it’s cancerous.
Set in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 1980s The Squid and the Whale opens on a tennis court. “Me and dad against you and mom,” the elder son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) elects, setting the stage for what becomes a too-earnest battle.
A few groundstrokes and a forehand slam to the wife’s chest later, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) has won the match and alienated his family. His wife Joan (Laura Linney) drops her racquet in disgust as Bernard stands motionless, half-exulted, half-guilty. Back at home in their elegant brownstone, the Berkmans talk over dinner.
Walt, a sixteen-year-old with literary pretensions, tells his parents about what he’s reading in English class. Bernard bristles at the suggestion of A Tale of Two Cities and regards his son dismissively. “Minor Dickens,” he exclaims.