All happy families are the same; each unhappy family is only sort of the same, and will eventually wind up in their own movie or book. Take the Meyerowitzes in Noah Baumbach’s latest movie. This sophisticated clan of New Yorkers reminded of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums by way of a 1980s Woody Allen drama/comedy and Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages. The important difference, I think, is that while the Tenenbaum children were gifted failures who remained children in their adult lives, the Meyerowitz children were gifted failures who became damaged but persistent adults.
If it all sounds uber-urbane, it ought to. Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is a respected yet obscure sculptor with a piece in the Whitney’s permanent collection. His granddaughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) is a budding filmmaker/video artist just starting college. They namedrop photographer Cindy Sherman, they talk about the limited prestige of a group art show, and the set dressing includes the curated stuff that would be found in an artsy-fartsy family’s home: provincial coffee table books, multiple hardcovers from The Library of America, etc.
But don’t let this put you off. There’s so much beautiful, painful stuff to connect to while watching The Meyerowitz Stories. That’s largely thanks to the performances of Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel as the unhappy siblings who tolerate and love their difficult, maybe even unlovable, father.
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 55th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical and Netflix release of the film.]
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Release Date: October 13, 2017 (Netflix/limited)
Every few years there’s a reminder of Adam Sandler’s talent as an actor/the abilities he routinely squanders in forgettable comedies. In 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson married Sandler’s oddball rage to the misfit charms of Punch-Drunk Love; Sandler also did a pretty good job of looking vulnerable in Mark Binder’s 2007 drama Reign Over Me (though it devolved into schmaltz). When we first see Danny Meyerowitz, he’s the typical Sandler character trying to find parking in Manhattan. He’s a lit fuse behind the wheel, signaling an eventual explosion into a raging, shrieking goon.
Yet there’s something about Sandler’s face in middle age. When he chooses to, he can appear wounded and worried, and it’s spot on for this character and this story. It’s the look of a sitcom dad in the real world who’s hit a rough patch--separation/divorce, tough times finding steady work, a limp from getting older--but he tries his hardest to be a good parent. In Danny’s case, he knows how much a bad parent can mess you up. (It makes sense that an overbearing father like Harold Meyerowitz is a sculptor working with rigid materials.) Danny takes such a tender approach with his daughter Eliza, trying not to hover, trying to be supportive, but mainly trying not to try too hard. She can be her own person and make her own mistakes. (It makes sense that Eliza Meyerowitz’s art is as free and unrepressed as it is.)
Danny’s half-brother Matthew (Stiller) is much more successful in an outward way, but is a distant, workaholic parent. He tries the best he can to raise a son via FaceTime, but he wears a knowing look and a troubled gait--this isn’t good enough, but it’s something, at least. I could almost sense Harold’s nagging in Matthew’s head, talking past him, telling him what he should have done all along, as if anything better could be done. Something as simple as a lunch with dad is the stuff of several therapy sessions.
Casting Stiller opposite Sandler is inspired given their skills at performing anger. While Sandler excels at the sudden, screeching outburst, Stiller is great at a simmering, seething frustration that eventually boils over. Danny and Matthew envy each other, and they love and hate each other. Their different forms of rage are complementary--it’s a side effect of having someone like Harold Meyerowitz as a dad. When the two actors eventually have a scene of dueling tantrums, it’s a bit contrived, and yet I was okay seeing a comedic pyrotechnic display between two different comic hotheads. Think Daffy Duck (definitely Stiller) and Donald Duck (definitely Sandler) playing pianos in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Harold has a health scare that leaves him in intensive care, which brings all three of the Meyerowitz siblings together. The threat of imminent death has that effect on families. A lot of the film plays out in a remote hospital in which the three Meyerowitz children try to come to terms with their father’s mortality. Usually Harold would dominate every conversation (really, monologues), chiseling away at his children’s love and patience. Hoffman is so good at playing a self-important and insufferable boor that it makes his near-catatonic turn immediately sympathetic. There’s a genuine fear behind the arrogance. Silence from this difficult guy is welcome for a moment, but a lack of yattering from the old man unnerves his kids as they try to work through their troubled lives.
This brings me to Jean Meyerowitz. Poor Jean. I’m of two minds about Elizabeth Marvel’s portrayal of the meekest Meyerowitz child. In some ways Jean’s a side character in the story, with her brothers front-and-center. It’s unfair and yet I think that’s intentional; it’s the unfortunate role she’s played in her own family her entire life. Danny was good at music and Matthew was Harold’s favorite, but what about Jean? She shrank into herself. As an adult she’s so put-together and shut-up-inside. Her demeanor suggests she’s perpetually at the verge of falling over, like she’s aware of how messed up her dad made her, but she makes do. (Don’t we all?) Marvel makes it seem like Jean’s always got more to say, something helpful even, but she never got used to actually saying it.
I’ve written so much about the characters and performances of The Meyerowitz Stories that I haven’t given enough attention to what Baumbach’s doing with the film’s structure. (But quickly: Emma Thompson’s Maureen is a wonderfully out-of-touch counterpoint to Harold’s self-obsession; all hippy-dippy, whimsy, and culinary disaster.) So many films can be described as novelistic, but The Meyerowitz Stories feels more like a short story collection/short story cycle. Its title, twee as it is, overtly suggests this structural conceit. The sequences are divvied up with title cards, each card signaling the start of a new story in the collection. The style of each segment is sometimes different, like an author trying out a different form to tell a specific story, yet the overriding narrative voice is still the same. I also sensed a literary approach to the editing. Certain lines of dialogue are cut off mid-phrase or mid-sentence. That makes sense for character who are used to be spoken over, yet these moments felt like line breaks or paragraph breaks in a story. It was as if a character had a great closing line for that scene, one that the audience can complete on their own, but one that doesn’t have the finality to end the short story. Line break.
The varied style of the unifying author is most apparent in the closing segment of The Meyerowitz Stories. I could picture on a page a series of blocks of text like prose-poems or flash fiction, each vignette hopping through small windows of time and space to reveal the fates of the family. Each of Baumbach’s fade outs were represented by a paragraph break between these discrete blocks of text; the black between scenes was a white space between paragraphs, or a trio of asterisks before the next vignette picked up the thread of the Meyerowitz family story.
During Jean’s moment to shine in the film, Danny and Matthew ask her why she’s here for their father. “Because I’m a decent person,” she says with certainty. It was a simple assertion, but one that made me rethink the Meyerowitz clan. They’re troubled, decent people, some more difficult than others. That’s what many unhappy families have in common. Ditto happy, loving families, which are always imperfect works in progress.