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On the Scene: Casting for Truths

November 3, 2005 By:
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Jesse Eisenberg is the reel Oscar bait of "The Squid and the Whale," a wallop of a film in which an urbane urban mess of a family can't manage to see its way above sea level.

Not that Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney don't limn illustrious portrayals of his Jewishly writerly professorial-type parents; they do. But that's all academic when considering the impact actor Eisenberg has as a teen tormented by his parents' dirty divorce.

Eisenberg certainly caught the eye of writer/director Noah Baumbach, whose own life growing up in 1980s' Brooklyn brooked much the same hardships as the film's Berkman family. Indeed, Eisenberg's Walt is Baumbach as boy/man fighting the cracks in the foundation that once served as his parents' tenuous take on marriage.

Eisenberg here cements his position as the unwavering anti-punk actor, playing the cool kid whose exterior boils open on occasion to show the furnace of feelings inside. He was so roger-dandy in "Roger Dodger" (2002) - and while it took more than a village to get "The Village" (2004) out of the box-office starting gate - he was one of the keys to any success the Philadelphia-shot film had.

And while every actor feels cursed with some credit on his bio - Eisenberg's is "Cursed," earlier this year - he is again in the pink in "The Squid and the Whale," this time as the Pink Floyd fan whose wall of protection evaporates as the floor gives way when his parents separate and he's left sliding between their lives in Park Slope.

In a word, the 22-year-old Queens, N.Y., native is sensational. But then, words rarely fail him.

"I get cast often as verbal people," Eisenberg muses. "It's probably how I sound."

Sounds like a winning combination of actor persona/polite young man. And if the Jewish accent on the film family's life seems familiar - ordering three dishes for four people in a Chinese restaurant because "it's enough" - that's because this is obviously a foursome (Owen Kline, making his acting debut, stars as the younger son) whose pyramid power at a seder table would start with the father.

Certainly, "the movie isn't specific about them being Jewish," acknowledges Eisenberg. But the actor, who grew up in a Jewish family, knows the Berkmans would be just as comfortable at hiding the matzah as they are their feelings.

"A literate family in that section of Brooklyn … that time and place … it feels right," opines Eisenberg.

It felt more than right to Eisenberg's mom - kvelling and crying as she watched her son expose small emotional truths on the big screen. "She saw it, and was crying all the time," says the actor with an affectionate laugh.

Hitting Home

Certainly, the screen kin are akin to Eisenberg's own family … to a degree - academically speaking. "My Dad and I have a wonderful relationship," stresses the son, "although he is much less of an egotist than Bernard," Daniels' dad character.

But the educational echt is there. Eisenberg's father "ran a hospital for a while, then started teaching in college," much like the professor the screen father is.

If Walt wilts at the discovery of his parents' divorce, he's certainly not above strong-arming his younger brother (Owen Kline owes much of his acting genes to his own folks - father Kevin Kline; mother Phoebe Cates).

Does that relationship hit home for Eisenberg?

"I've an older sister who I thought of," he says of inspirations for the siblings' set pieces. "She'd always dismiss me because I was younger."

Such attitude is "so fake," he says because "at the end of the day, you only have each other."

Eisenberg also has another sister, the younger and famously talented/adorable Hallie Kate Eisenberg, with whom he has "a nurturing relationship" as older brother.

If the Berkmans are screwed up on screen, well, just wait for Eisenberg's next film effort to add to the party: "The F*** Up," about an aspiring writer on New York's Lower East Side at just about the same time period as that explored in "The Squid and the Whale."

Has Eisenberg captured all the rights to roles focusing on writers and New York City during the era of the 1980s?

Maybe it's oh-so-appropriate for such a literate likeable young man, who now can write his own ticket to film fame.

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