D: Noah Baumbach / 112m
Cast: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Judd Hirsch, Rebecca Miller, Candice Bergen, Adam Driver, Matthew Shear, Sakina Jaffrey, Gayle Rankin, Michael Chernus
Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman) is a semi-famous sculptor who hasn’t had a show in years, and who has become somewhat marginalised within the New York art world. His work is admired by those that know of it, but his contemporaries, such as L.J. Shapiro (Hirsch), are still exhibiting and still getting the recognition that Harold thinks they don’t deserve. Harold is on his fourth marriage – to Maureen (Thompson) – and has two children from his first, Danny (Sandler) and Jean (Marvel). Danny is in the midst of separating from his wife, and has a precocious teenage daughter, Eliza (Van Patten), who is about to leave for college. Jean is a spinster but leads an otherwise happy life. Harold has another child from his third marriage, Matthew (Stiller), but he lives in LA, and works as a financial consultant. He’s successful, and has a young son he would like to spend more time with. This is the family Meyerowitz, and despite outward appearances, many of which they foster themselves, they all need help (oh boy, do they need help).
What’s impressive about Noah Baumbach’s latest feature is that he takes a stereotypical dysfunctional family, and spins that stereotype ever so slightly off its axis, so that each nugget of information about any of the characters seems fresh and unexpected, even though a closer inspection reveals tropes and metaphors that we’ve seen countless times before. This is due to Baumbach’s very eloquent and very astute screenplay, a piece of writing that manages to include a number of complex and yet succinct observations on the nature of father-son relationships and the effect that an inwardly scared parent can have on their children. It’s no surprise that Baumbach has chosen to examine the issue of what children need from their parents as this has formed the basis of much of his work in the past, from The Squid and the Whale (2005) to While We’re Young (2014). But this is easily his most impressive and most fully realised project, and it has a smoothness and an ease about it that makes it all the more enjoyable to watch.
The main focus is, at first, on Danny. With his marriage coming to an end and Eliza going off to college, Danny has to reassess what he’s going to do with his life (he’s been a house husband up until now, having chosen that as his “career” instead of being a musician). He and Jean get involved in arranging a retrospective of Harold’s career, but Baumbach is quick to make the viewer realise that this isn’t being done out of love or affection, and not even necessarily out of respect for their father’s work. Like so many other things connected to Harold that they do, it’s done because they view it as the right thing to do; it’s a familial obligation. But Harold is obsessed with how his work is perceived, because his work is the only thing that, to him, makes him stand out from the crowd. He’s constantly seeking approbation from everyone around him, and insists he receives it from his kids. But if they don’t, then he’s oblivious to both them and their needs. Such is their lives as adults, such was their lives as children.
Harold’s narcissistic expressions about himself, and his short-fuse dismissal of anyone he deems unimportant, has had an unpleasant effect on all three of his children. Danny has spent an enormous amount of time and energy in raising Eliza so that they’re more like friends instead of father and daughter. As a result he’s a better father than Harold was to him, but the irony is that in its own way, it’s as unhealthy as the relationship Danny had with him as a child. Baumbach makes the point well: too little attention or love can be just as bad as too much. But while that may seem obvious (and it is), it’s the way in which Danny tries to strike a balance between the two, and without necessarily being aware that he’s doing it, that makes all the difference. Jean has her own reasons for keeping her life separate, and though it seems that she’s perhaps the most “adjusted” of the three, this later proves to be incorrect. And then there’s Matthew, who professes to be “over” his father’s ability to make him angry for having a successful life (Harold is almost as obsessed by money as he is by maintaining his reputation). Matthew, like Danny, is trying to be a better father than Harold was, but he can’t seem to connect with his son, despite his best efforts.
Watching these four people struggle to communicate with each other, and struggle to find the answers that are often in front of them, should be frustrating for the viewer, but Baumbach, and the sharpness of his script, helps avoid all that. The family dynamic is entirely credible and perfectly judged, with superb performances from all concerned. Sandler has only been better once before, in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and here he proves that he can be a fine dramatic actor when he wants to be (which isn’t often enough). Sandler displays a warmth and a heartfelt sincerity as Danny that allows the viewer a way in to the Meyerowitz family and its myriad issues. He’s a sweet, caring guy trying to do his best, and he has enough self-awareness to know that he doesn’t always get it right. Stiller is equally as good, channelling Matthew’s anger at being unfairly singled out for Harold’s praise as a child when the praise, and what it related to, wasn’t important to Matthew at all. In support, Marvel, Thompson and Van Patten offer touching performances, while there are a clutch of more minor roles that allow for a few scene-stealing moments (Chernus as a snippy nurse is a treat). But this, perhaps expectedly, is Hoffman’s movie, his portrayal of Harold as a manipulative, emotionally remote artist one of the best things he’s done in years.
Baumbach approaches the material and the characters with a great deal of care and attention, and it’s this that makes the movie so effortlessly dramatic, and so effortlessly funny. Nobody behaves in a manner that might seem odd or inappropriate because that’s how they’ve always behaved. With some questions there’s an answer provided, but many’s the time when Baumbach keeps the viewer in the dark, as if to say, “these characters still need time to figure things out, and it’s not going to happen before the movie’s over”. It all adds up to a remarkably humane and sympathetic look at expectations between the generations, and how personal legacies can hamper the growth of those who are raised in the shadow of them. Thoughtful and considerate of its characters’ foibles and muted aspirations, Baumbach’s latest is a sprightly mix of drama and comedy that succeeds on both fronts, and is his best work yet.
Rating: 9/10 – that rarity: a comedy-drama with heart as well as intelligence, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a cautionary tale that never once feels forced or that it’s struggling to find its own voice; the characters linger in the memory, along with Baumbach’s clever script and fluid direction, and a number of quality performances, making this a movie that everyone should try and see, and especially as an alternative to more mainstream, big-budget moviemaking.