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Secrets and lies 

Two families fall apart in two very different New York tales

From the very first shots of The Squid and the Whale, it's clear that match point has arrived for the Berkman family. Noah Baumbach's funny and sad third feature begins in the middle of a family tennis match in which father Bernard and his older son Walt are squaring off against his wife Joan and younger son Frank. The bearded, bearish patriarch (Jeff Daniels) sizes up the opponents and advises his son, "Hit it to your mother's backhand. That's her weaker side." The coldness in Bernard's voice catches Walt off guard and he glances at his father sharply.

Afterward, as we watch Bernard and his wife (Laura Linney) remove themselves for some private bickering, we realize that their two sons don't fully realize how exhausted their parents' marriage is. By the end of Baumbach's briskly paced, 80-minute film, the kids are not only wised up, but the parents have revealed themselves to be as petulant and needy as their sons.

When Bernard and Joan separate, they establish a complex joint custody arrangement that requires the two boys to spend three days a week "and every other Thursday" in their father's new place, which turns out to be a squalid substitute for the family hearth. Although Bernard and Joan continue to participate in their sons' activities together, both parents and children end up exploiting the custodial arrangements in the interest of settling scores and winning arguments. A couple of confrontations are, in fact, quite ugly.

The film is set in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the mid-1980s, a time when young artistic families flourished in that neighborhood's brownstones. Bernard is a novelist who's reduced to coasting on his youthful promise, impressing his college students with his increasingly dusty credentials. The somewhat younger Joan, on the other hand, is starting to find some traction for her own writing career, a transition that announces itself when she begins rejecting her husband's literary advice.

Their son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is entering the teenaged angst period of his life, listening to Pink Floyd and waffling over a girl he's not sure is good enough for him. His parentage affords him an air of unearned erudition that he holds in front of him like a shield. Daunted by his parents' education, he's most comfortable regurgitating their airy opinions. "That's minor Fitzgerald," he sniffs to his girlfriend about This Side of Paradise. It goes without saying that he hasn't read the book. His younger brother Frank (Owen Kline), on the other hand, is a less complicated figure who aspires to be a tennis pro--not like Connors or McEnroe, however, but like his teacher at the club. This limited aim irritates his father, who, sensing his own diminishing expectations, is beginning to relive his dreams--athletic, artistic and sexual--through his sons.

If The Squid and the Whale seems unsettlingly authentic in its particulars, it's because Baumbach is telling a fictionalized version of his own parents' divorce. His parents were minor members of the Brooklyn literati, his father being a slightly known novelist and his mother a film critic for The Village Voice. The details on display here are exceedingly messy in the way that we usually associate with French movies like Look at Me, released earlier this year, and Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart, an inspiration acknowledged by Baumbach. In Squid, the Berkman family dinnertime chat is casually urbane and unusually frank about sexual matters. In the fashion of so many French films, the father is given to seducing his female students, and accordingly, the now-single Bernard begins an affair with Lili, his star student, who eventually moves in. Meanwhile, the mother finds her own sexual bliss with a cheerful jock (William Baldwin).

The arrival of his father's 20-year-old mistress, played with naughty glances by Anna Paquin, is a source of torment for Walt. While Bernard replants his wild oats with this vixen, Walt finds his own semi-girlfriend hopelessly inadequate by comparison. Walt's one concession to an ordinary adolescent sensibility is his fondness for Pink Floyd and, in particular, the song "Hey You," the cri de coeur of solipsism from The Wall. The song is used throughout the film, and reaches a hilariously unlikely apogee when Walt passes the song off as his own at a school talent show. But when this act of plagiarism lands him in school-ordered therapy, Walt finally allows some light through his walled-off psyche.

Although The Squid and the Whale is a modestly-scaled film, a slew of expert performances anchor the tale. Laura Linney, who so often plays well-behaved, refined women, here draws on her soft edges to make her sharply drawn character sympathetic. More impressive still is Jeff Daniels as Bernard, a man who still commands the ability to inspire and intimidate his sons and young women even as his literary career goes up in smoke. As the two sons, Eisenberg and Kline are spot on, with Eisenberg delivering a merciless portrait of the future filmmaker.

Baumbach's first two films, Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, were cleverly written but shallow and unmemorable. Full of smart literary and cinematic references, they seemed like the work of a well-brought up kid who knows how to impress grown-ups. With his self-lacerating third feature, however, Baumbach tells the story of his youthful self escaping the prison of his own ego, and in doing so, produces a risk-taking, heartfelt film.

'Tis the season for martyrdom operations. Another film about terrorism will arrive on the heels of Hany Abu-Assad's intelligent and gripping Paradise Now. Scheduled to open later this month, the enigmatically titled The War Within is the work of a young American filmmaker named Joseph Castelo, but it tells the story of a sleeper cell in New York City. The War Within isn't as svelte as Paradise Now, but it's a worthy film in its own right.

Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who co-wrote the script with Castelo) is a Pakistani engineering student living in Paris. When we meet him--presumably just after the 9/11 attacks--he's walking on a Left Bank street, talking on his cell phone and making plans to see a movie. Sadly, he is about to enter the horror movie-world of ghost detainees. Swept off the street by American agents, he wakes up in a Karachi prison cell where he's quickly and bewilderingly tortured.

Three years later, Hassan arrives in New York, stowed away on one of the freight containers that, to this day, go uninspected by customs officials. He visits an old friend and his family, and rekindles an old romance with the friend's sister. But we soon learn his real business in New York: terror. Once a gentle and secular student, Hassan's experiences in the netherworld of ghost detention has turned him into an Islamist terrorist.

While Paradise Now placed its protagonists firmly in the context of a well-known political struggle, the motives of Hassan and his fellow plotter Khalid are more obscure. While Hassan's rage over his incarceration and the death of a brother is understandable, his transition from student to terrorist isn't convincingly explored. The underground cell led by Khalid is a generic television construct, and Khalid himself turns out to be a cipher and a coward. Consequently, we don't care about Hassan nearly as much as we should. In fairness, though, if we don't get to know Hassan as well as we would like, it's at least partly due to the fact that the man we see is a crushed version of a once highly-functioning human being.

What works most powerfully in The War Within is the swift, brutal destruction of Hassan's host family in New York, a clan of assimilating Pakistanis who revel in America's opportunities. Their fate is heartbreaking.

  • Two families fall apart in two very different New York tales

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