The squid and the whale of The Squid and the Whale are to be found in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The enormous diorama, which plays a central role in the interior life of this film's main character, depicts a sperm whale attempting to eat a giant squid. The ferocious battle scene is "only an artist's conception . . . no one has ever seen a giant squid alive in its natural habitat, the pitch-dark waters up to 1,000 meters beneath the ocean's surface."
Viewers might wish that writer/director Noah Baumbach's painful, semiautobiographical story were similarly obscured in unsearchable depths. His own "artist's conception" of events is just as vivid and horrifying as the museum diorama, but the dissolution of his family is presented in far more excruciating detail.
Say this for The Squid and the Whale (rated R for strong sexual content, graphic dialogue, and language): The film strips what sheen may still exist from divorce. Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) is the teenage son of two New York intellectuals, father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and mother Joan (Laura Linney). Dad's career as a novelist is waning; Mom seems poised for literary success. When the two split, Walt and his brother Frank (Owen Kline) find that the joint-custody arrangement is just the start of their problems.
As is often the case, the kids take sides. Walt blindly idolizes his intellectually arrogant father, absorbing regrettable attitudes toward women and a completely off-putting sense of entitlement. Younger brother Frank sides with his mother but fares no better-exploiting the lack of oversight his new situation provides to plunge headlong into multiple vices.
Mr. Baumbach, viewers sense, is being brutally honest in Squid and must find the experience somehow cathartic. But justifying the time any of the rest of us would spend with such profoundly unsympathetic characters is a task far beyond this reviewer.