Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) Berkman have been married for 17 years when Joan asks for a separation. The have two sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 10-year-old Frank (Owen Kline). Both parents are writers. Bernard is well established. He's published several novels and holds a university position as a professor of creative writing. Joan is just now breaking through. She has recently published a story in The New Yorker, and has just signed a contract for her first novel.
We get just a glimpse of what life in Berkman household might once have been. The parents and children sit over dinner and casually discuss Dickens. Both parents are exceptionally well read, and both take delight in Walt's emerging artistic curiosity.
The problem in the Berkman household is obliquely but effectively suggested rather than forthrightly dramatized. Bernard and Joan married when Bernard's literary star was still rising and when his potential seemed greatest. Joan remembers Bernard from that time as if he's a different person than the one she's now living with. She didn't write back then, and she apparently married the artist as much as the man. A decade and a half and two children later, Bernard's career has stalled. He hasn't published recently, and his latest book is generating not buzz but rejection slips. Joan's career, meanwhile, is at the stage that Bernard's was when they married. An early scene with the family playing tennis doubles (Bernard and Walt versus Joan and Frank) illustrates what's happened to the parents' relationship. They aren't teammates anymore; now, they are rivals.
When the Berkmans separate, they agree on joint custody. Joan remains in the family home; Bernard moves into a place not terribly far away. The boys are to shuttle back and forth on a semi-daily basis. Walt and Frank tolerate this inconvenient living arrangement, but each boy chooses emotional sides with a different parent, Walt with his father, Frank with his mother. And gradually the parents begin to deploy their sons as pawns in their own emotional war. The effect is predictably destructive. Wanting to measure up to a dad he idolizes, Walt adopts the same snobbish pretensions we've witnessed in Bernard. When a friend gushes about This Side of Paradise, Walt sneers that the book is "minor Fitzgerald." Unmoored from the secure foundations of his family, Walt struggles with identity and judgment. He becomes deceitful and pointlessly cruel. He has his first romance with a pretty and sweet girl named Sophie (Halley Feiffer), but he's so unsure of himself he treats her badly for no reason whatsoever. Frank is comparably damaged, but with different results at home and at school.
Very much of The Squid and the Whale rings true. Divorcing parents do bring their children into their own squabbles; they do recruit loyalty in service of their own egos but to the detriment of their children. And children, young and old, are affected negatively. Divorces breed insecurity the way manure breeds maggots, and insecurity produces poor choices and other examples of instability. But Baumbach errs in rendering Bernard and Joan as so unremittingly selfish. The Berkmans speak words of love to their sons, but show them very little. Artistically worse, both Joan and Bernard seem immune to internal conflict, self-recrimination, worry about guilt or feelings of shame. Both seem oblivious to how their behavior yields negative consequences for their boys. In the end, their lack of introspection robs the picture of depth resonant emotional power.