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Precise language livens up 'Squid'

Family delights in choosing most fitting, and offensive, words

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE — *** — Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg; rated R (vulgarity, sex, profanity); Broadway Centre Cinemas.

Don't be lulled into vague despair by the bickering juveniles and comic timing of "The Squid and the Whale." You might miss something.

The most praiseworthy thing about emerging writer-director Noah Baumbach's movie is the precise observation and delivery of language. To speak a thought aloud in the Berkman family is to pass judgment on all surroundings, physical and animal, to parse the exact ranking of things by choosing the word most appropriate, and most likely to offend.

If it turns out Mom was having an affair, and that affair becomes two or three, her son will declare she was running "a brothel." Dad assesses his son's girlfriend as pleasant, but not beautiful, and suddenly she's no longer desirable. A just-purchased home may be the "filet" of Brooklyn's original housing stock, but it's not run-down, according to Dad — it's "elegant." A story by Kafka we must certainly declare to be "Kafka-esque," because then we don't have to admit we haven't actually read it yet.

Baumbach, who collaborated with fellow language-parser Wes Anderson on "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and directed two earlier indies, delights in these relatives slicing each other up with pages of the dictionary. No distinction of appearance, class, education or perspective goes unnoticed, although everyone involved would be far better off if a few of these observations went unremarked.

The exacting judgments begin with Jeff Daniels, who, as Bernard Berkman, is an aging novelist unconsciously bitter about his declining career. Wife Joan (Laura Linney) seems to be digging out from his scorn and writing a decent book of her own, always the worst fear of a jealous authorial spouse. The kids are headed for trouble and definitely won't benefit from the inevitable separation.

Baumbach is helped a great deal by William Baldwin — yes, a Baldwin making a movie much better — in a small part as a Lebowski-like tennis pro. Like Anderson, Baumbach seems to have grown up on Ilie Nastase and Bjorn Borg and delights in tennis shorts and greasy, post-match hairstyles. When one of the kids finally adopts Baldwin's goofy universal greeting of, "Hey, my brother," the comic payoff is huge.

"Don't be difficult," the Berkmans keep telling each other. They can't help it. They all believe in saying exactly what they mean. But in Baumbach's hands, they may be teachable — there is a chance they will learn that if you can't say anything nice, choosing the right adjective isn't going to make it sound any better.

"The Squid and the Whale" is rated R for adult situations and humor, strong sexual content and language. Running time: 88 minutes.