Noah Baumbach’s bitter, dry, sardonically witty dramedy is a remarkably observant portrait of a family on the brink of self-implosion. In Brooklyn in 1986, Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), once a somewhat successful published author now teaching literary classes to college students, is becoming attracted to his racy protege (Anna Paquin). Meanwhile, his wife Joan (Laura Linney), who has had multiple sexual affairs (“nothing serious”), is carrying on with the family tennis pro (William Baldwin) and attempting to become a published author herself. These two pseudo-intellectuals’ marriage is on a collision course with an apocalypse of their own creation; so where does that leave their two children? They respond in different ways. The youngest is Frank (Owen Kline, son of Kevin) who is unprepared for the revelation that his parents’ marriage has fallen apart and that he will be going back and forth between them “for a while;” he tends to favor his mother, and soon is swearing up a storm, drinking beer, and masturbating and spreading his semen all over school. Meanwhile, the oldest son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg of “Roger Dodger”), is a high school student and would-be intellectual monster in the making, skewing toward his father’s side of things: he asks his opinion about class-assigned books to decide whether or not to “waste his time” on them (turns out “A Tale of Two Cities” is “minor Dickens”); he tries to impress his sweet potential first girlfriend Sophie (Halley Feiffer) by regurgitating his dad’s opinions on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and when it turns out she’s actually read it, he responds: “It’s very Kafkaesque,” to which she quickly fires back, “Well…it’s by Franz Kafka. It has to be;” he lets his father dictate that he, Walt and Sophie should skip “Short Circuit” and see something else (“I hear ‘Blue Velvet’ is supposed to be quite interesting”); and even claims he wrote “Hey You” by Pink Floyd – only to be caught after winning the school talent competition. The film was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the maker of “Kicking & Screaming” (1995; not the Will Farrell kids soccer one), a tale of literary college graduates who become slackers, and the co-writer of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004). In the locations, art direction, cinematography, right down to the choice of music, Baumbach shows a sure hand at evoking a specific time, place and style of people while also paying astonishingly minute attention to the details of what divorce does to children and their parents; as a child of divorce, I could completely empathize and understand. The story, it may not shock you to discover then, is heavily autobiographical; Baumbach came from writing stock – his father was novelist Jonathan Baumbach and his mother was film critic Georgia Brown. The performances too are dead-on in their portrayal of the anger, sadness and confusion that must go on when a child is almost forced to favor one parent over another, yet must be ferried back and forth between them. This is a tough, honest, bitter and bruisingly funny look at a powder keg of a situation, and its explosion is often funny, insightful and memorable. One of the year’s best films.
<br/>NOTE: At the Toronto Film Festival, the film premiered with an 88 minute running time, but was seemingly cut for theatrical and DVD release. The film was (deservedly) a 2005 Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay. Baumbach, meanwhile, has since gone on to write and direct “Margot at the Wedding” (2007) with Nicole Kidman as a similarly cold would-be intellectual writer.