February 1, 2006 -- This is an insightful, unblinking, bittersweet and funny portrait of a family in the process of a bitter divorce. The way this film shows us the damage done to two young boys caught in the middle of this divorce is as touching as anything I've ever seen in a movie. Both boys suffer different kinds of psychological damage in the process of the family's breakup. Although the story is told from the children's point of view, it very revealing of the adults.
Jeff Daniels of “The Hours” plays the father, Bernard Berkman, an immature author and college instructor whose best days as a writer are behind him. Laura Linney plays his ex-wife, Joan, a woman who is just coming into her own as an author. William Baldwin of “Sliver” plays Ivan, a tennis instructor who becomes Linney's boyfriend and Anna Paquin of “X-2: X-Men United,” plays a student who has an affair with Daniels.
The two boys, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg of “The Emperor's Club”) and Frank (Owen Kline of “The Anniversary Party”) split their allegiances as they attempt to adapt to a difficult joint custody arrangement. The older boy, Walt, sides with his father, while Frank sides with his mother. Walt finally figures out that his father is manipulating him and trying to poison his relationship with his mother. Walt also seems to discover that his black and white view of the world is too simplistic. Frank begins to assert his right to determine his own future, defying his father's attempts to dominate his view of the world. This film has the ring of truth to it (it is reportedly based on the personal experiences of the film's screenwriter and director, Noah Baumbach) and it gets all the seamy little details right, the jealousy, the envy, the pain of loss, the petty disputes over property. It also gets the details right in showing how the two boys behave a lot like their parents at times.
Bernard, the father, comes off looking like the villain in this film, while Joan, the mother, is able to maintain her cool better. Bernard appears to be a man on his way down. His new book is rejected by his publisher. He is low on money and living in a run down house. Once the head of his family, he can see everything slipping away from him. Joan, on the other hand, is patient and loving while she waits for her estranged son to make his peace with her. The film does have its funny moments which are born out of simple human folly, selfishness and vanity. None of the humor is forced in this superbly well-written screenplay. The acting is great by the whole cast, especially Linney. Kudos to Daniels for so effectively playing a character who is hard to sympathize with. This film rates a B+.