A hyper-verbal, deeply wounded man who is almost as clever (but not nearly as brilliant) as he thinks he is has an ego that has been triply hit. His unfaithful wife wants a divorce, his writing career, once called promising, now feels like the promise was broken, and the onset of middle age has left him feeling soft and old and uncertain.
So, Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) makes things worse, with casually but unmistakably condescending and contemptuous assessments of just about everything. He keeps putting it out there, calling what he approves of the “filet,” whether it’s a neighborhood or a novel, pretending that everyone cares what he thinks and is guided by it.
But only two people are. One is his teenaged son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), who is — briefly — at just that moment when his father’s combination of arrogance and certainty feels comforting to him, something to hold fast to in a world where everything is changing too quickly.
The other is a student in Bernard’s writing class, Lili (the exquisite Anna Paquin in a performance of great shrewdness). She is, briefly, at at stage where the great advantage of Bernard’s arrogance and certainty is testing the power of her youth and promise by seeing if she can make him topple. Which she can.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach based this story on his own life and he gets the details right — the shabby but dignified gentility of 1970’s Brooklyn, the acid exchanges and inconvenient longings of a dissolving marriage, the exquisite agony of those first flutterings of love and those first earthquakes of lust. The title refers to a massive display at the museum that once terrified Walt. Now, it seems less scary than the battles he lives with. Or maybe it helps him understand them.
Baumbach guides his talented cast to performances that are both sensitive and fearless. Daniels and Laura Linney as his wife are sympathetic but willing to show us the narcissism under their characters’ reactions. Eisenberg and Owen Kline as his younger brother who sides with the mother in the divorce are open and natural. The lovely Halley Feiffer as Walt’s love interest is marvelously expressive and vulnerable.
Bambach understands how everyone in the family responds to the seismic shifts by trying to hold on to what they can, by marking their territory (literally, in the case of the younger son, who wipes school lockers and library books with his ejaculate). Baumbach himself holds on to his story by telling it to us with clarity and understanding.
Parents should know that this movie includes very mature material, including very strong and crude language and inappropriate conversations between parents and children. There are explicit sexual references and situations, including adultery, references to teen sex, and masturbation. Characters drink and smoke. There are tense and emotional scenes and it appears one character is seriously ill.
Families who see this movie should talk about its autobiographical origins. How can you tell that it is from the point of view of Walt, and not one of the other characters? How does the screenwriter feel about his father now, compared to the way Walt feels in the film? How can you tell?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Rich in Love and Shoot the Moon.