A knowingness about the effects of divorce
"People can be very stupid," declares literature professor and novelist Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) about his divorce. Squid and the Whale is a successful look at the modern warfare of love and disappointment in the context of both academic parents and the children who must live through it all. Quirky, eccentric, and sharp is Wes Anderson prot?g? Noah Baumbach, who finds even the smartest parents deficient in the skills to bring children into adulthood.
No one lives in the Berkman household without experiencing the joy of having 2 writers as parents and the sorrow of those 2 parents splitting. Each boy reacts differently, the younger spreading his masturbated liquid on the walls, the older imitating dad by putting down his girlfriend, "You have too many freckles." Even mom (Laura Linney) is in on the retributions as she takes up with a cloudy-headed tennis coach (William Baldwin) and publishes articles and a novel to the chagrin of the academically sliding Bernard.
The film's strength is its knowingness about the effects of divorce; its weakness is a reluctance to use ironic subtlety as Anderson does in the bookend to this film, The Royal Tenenbaums, a quirkier treatment of an artier family. Young Walt's (Jesse Eisenburg) fudging a performance at a school function by singing Pink Floyd's "Hey You" as his own composition is symptomatic of the disconnection plaguing the Berkmans. Frank, the youngest Berkman, at one point declares to his mother that she's ugly. Because she is played by the lovely Laura Linney, it's clear Frank has a great deal of maturing to do.
Margaret Atwood caught the vicious effects of modern divorce: "A divorce is like an amputation; you survive, but there s less of you." Everyone in the Berkman family is diminished by divorce.