When I first saw The Squid and the Whale back in 2007, I was a wannabe literary scholar, so the references to Dickens and Kafka appealed to that part of me. In 2023, I’m a real scholar of Singles Studies, so this movie appeals to that part of me now.
This accurately observed slice-of-life centers around the Berkman family and it’s foursquare against marriage. The film opens with a tennis match that houses a hostile subtext, as father Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is constantly trying to one-up mother Joan (Laura Linney). Not long after, they announce their impending divorce to their kids, who take sides. Walt (a pre-Social Network Jesse Eisenberg) has an odd kinship with his father and parrots him in his mannerisms and sayings. He uses the term “Kafkaesque” without knowing its actual significance, and tells his new girlfriend Sophie, “Don’t be difficult,” much like Dad does with Mom. Frank (Owen Kline) doesn’t want to say with Dad on “Dad’s custody nights,” and emulates the loosey-goosey of his tennis instructor (and Mom’s new boyfriend), Ivan (William Baldwin).
Every interaction between Bernard and Joan is like fingernails on the chalkboard. We learn she’s cheated on him for four years, but to be fair, Bernard is a bit of a douche (he tells his sons, “A Tale of Two Cities is minor Dickens”). He mansplains, he talks down to Joan, he was negligent with much of the emotional labor and domestic chores, basically, he’s the stereotype of the entitled married white man. Even worse is the fact that post-separation, he lets one of his students, Lily (Anna Paquin), move in with him, and it’s implied they’re sleeping together. Shame, shame, shame, he should know better.
When Walt says to Bernard, “marriage is supposed to be forever,” Walt responds, “Don’t most of your friends have divorced parents?”
They do. In one conversation, one of Walt’s friends recounts how his parents let him and his sister stay in their house, and they would each visit the kids separately, before eventually selling the house. The kid’s conclusion: Joint custody blows.