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Jeff Daniels gives one of the best performances of his career as Bernard Berkman, a New York intellectualist, former literary golden boy gone to seed, and goldurn paterfamilius of a rapidly disintegrating family in this merciless bildungsroman from writer/director Noah Baumbach. Watching the parents (Laura Linney plays mother Joan) divide their children up like prized furniture is bracing enough without the knowledge that they are based not-so-loosely on Baumbach's real family. It's sort of hard to imagine what sort of dark chunks of pysche this fellow had to dredge out to bring such a sharply-realized vision to life, and impossible to think what it would have been like to be the parents in question watching this film -- if indeed they watched it. (I don't know about Baumbach's real father, but it's easy to see Daniels' Bernard nodding sagely through his thicket of whiskers and damning it with faint praise by way of passive-agressive defense). Few movies have so incisively shown the corrosive effects of self-regard. What's not clear is what it is all in service of. Divorce sucks. Selfish monsters make bad parents. And? But never mind, see this for the ensemble performances, and that of Daniels in particular.
It's a story of glimpses of pain, castaway shivs, little wounds that bleed out slowly but work their poison in deeply. At the center of it is the relationship between Bernard, who once published a well-received novel and is trying as hard as he can not to recognize that this was all he had in the tank, and his son, Baumbach stand-in Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), into whom he pours his own legend. Walt's too-slow realization that his dad is not all, or even most, of what he makes himself to be, makes up most of the emotional development of the story -- after the divorce leaves the entire family in emotional shambles, that is. It's not particularly fun to watch, especially as youngest son Frank starts to spiral down the drain, indulging in extremely underage drinking and punitive masturbation.
Not that Bernard is the sole problem. Joan (Linney is very good, as usual, and very underused, as usual) is also too caught up in her own issues of boredom and affairs to pay much attention to her kids, though her relationship with tennis pro Ivan (Billy Baldwin, actually . . . good? in this) is ultimately seen as a positive and healthy thing, though that's mainly by contrast. Joan may have to shoulder some blame and take some lumps as a caregiver, but it's Bernard who's the real piece of work.
He's not just a writer, he's The Writer. In his tweeds and his studiously unkempt beard and his bearish athleticism, he's the parody of the apotheosis of Twentieth Century Writer, and in order to keep at bay the self-loathing that would inevitably result if he allowed the discrepancy between image and reality to seep in, he shields himself in a pillowy armor of self regard; thus everything is filtered through the prism of himself. Every game of tennis or ping pong must be a crushing victory. Never mind that the opponent is your wife or your nine-year-old. Even minor gestures of affection -- like making the boys keep old dad company as he circles around their house looking for a parking spot -- are demanded as fealty and couched only in terms of what he himself needs. It's no coincidence that the marriage is over exactly when his wife herself publishes a successful book. Her dalliances were tolerable. Her success in his chosen battlefield is not.
Daniels makes all this clear with consummate skill, never overplayed, always with the ever-thinning veneer of professorial charisma. He's clearly not a dumb man; but he's not a particularly good man, and he's just not all that great of a writer. And every so often -- very rarely -- Daniels lets us see that Bernard knows it, too.