Directed by Noah Baumbach/2017
Noah Baumbach has developed a unique voice in today’s culture that he has been honing, especially strong in his films is the many stories that take place in New York, a constantly uncredited character that provides the backdrop and context to these stories. He is also a director who, like Wes Anderson, has developed a deep bench of regular players who seem to constantly show up in his work. Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Michael Chernus, and Adam Driver are just a few that show up here in Baumbach’s latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Joining the cast are Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Judd Hirsch, Grace Van Patten, Elizabeth Marvel, Candice Bergen, and Sigourney Weaver.
The film centers around the dysfunction of Meyerowitz family. Harold (Hoffman) is the patriarch of the family. A sculpture and retired art professor, Harold has been married 4 times. His current wife, Maureen (Thompson) is constantly drunk. To get her to give up drinking, he agreed to buy her a dog. Now with a dog, Maureen is back on drink, constantly leaving town for places like Cuba and Easter Island. One of her trips allows for Harold’s son Danny (Sandler) to move back in to spend some quality time with his father following his recent separation from his wife, and the fact that his daughter Eliza (Van Patten) is headed off to attend the same school her grandfather Harold used to teach. She is a budding filmmaker whose films might be social commentaries, or simply porn. Harold is just happy there will be another artist in the family.
While Danny plays piano, he never did anything with it other than be a stay-at-home-dad who gave piano lessons. Danny is a disappointment to his father who never gave him much time growing up. He also didn’t have much time for his daughter Jean (Marvel) who works at Xerox. In fact, the only child who ever gets Harold’s attention is Matthew (Stiller), a product of his third marriage. Matthew is a successful businessman who represents artists and does financial planning out in Los Angeles. Despite the fact that Matthew never has time to see his father, or half-siblings, never calls or keeps up with their lives, he is the favorite son.
Harold is obviously a bitter man, lamenting the fact that his art hasn’t taken off like many of his contemporaries like L.J. Shapiro (Hirsch) and his art has. Shapiro is opening exhibits in the New York Museum of Modern Art while Harold can only get a group show featuring alumni from the college he taught at (Though he met Sigourney Weaver at L.J.’s exhibit. She said, “Hello, I’m Sigourney”, and Harold said “Hi, I’m Harold”.) He is constantly leaving places as a form of protest against such injustices (just like McEnroe he says). Harold’s own self-importance never has time for others, and it seems that not living up to his potential as an artist tends to occupy his every thought, taking him away from the moments he has been given to connect with his current wife and his kids. Despite opportunities being right in front of him, Harold finds ways to justify his selfishness and ruin the moments.
As much as the kids have grown to be adults who resent him and his cold indifference, they all seem to be trying to prove themselves to him. Danny and Jean are the real gluttons for punishment as they constantly try to praise their father and be there for him, knowing that like their childhood, they will never get any love reciprocated back. They also are told directly that they’ll never live up to Matthew in their father’s eyes. When Harold finds himself in the hospital, the three children finally begin to address the issues and dysfunction that have plagued them their whole lives, as well as the stories they were told, or chose to believe about themselves and their father growing up.
While the subject matter is dark and somber, Baumbach has written a script that is filled with constant humor, and moments of levity that permeate each exchange. Stiller and Sandler are a great pairing, and both have shared Hoffman as a father in other films, with Sandler working with Hoffman in The Cobbler, and Stiller in the Meet the Parents trilogy. Hoffman and Sandler exhibiting extreme moments of anger, while thinking the other is ridiculous despite being cut from the same cloth, is hilarious. Hoffman has worked with Thompson previously in Stranger than Fiction, and as such, they have a great chemistry of familiarity that infuses each scene. The only regular player I especially missed from Baumbach’s past work was Greta Gerwig. I would have loved to see what she could have added to the proceedings, but even without her, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a strong film.
This is a film that is being produced in conjunction with Netflix who will release the film to a limited run of theaters, as well as to their streaming platform simultaneously. Perhaps seeking to qualify the film in any potential end of the year award considerations, they are choosing to work with theaters to release the film traditionally, but are getting some pushback by those who don’t like the idea that they must compete with the more convenient streaming option in people’s home. Seeing Amazon Studios’ success with Manchester by the Sea last year (earning a Casey Affleck a Best Actor Oscar), it is no wonder that Netflix may be ready to go against their preferred business model to test the possible award waters.
Apparently, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) does not fulfill Adam Sandler’s original 4-picture deal with the company, though if it did, Netflix would have pulled off a coup in actually getting a good performance out of a contract meant to allow Sandler to throw anything at the wall to see if it would stick. Sandler, like his previous serious work in Reign O’er Me, Punch Drunk Love, and to a certain degree Spanglish, shows that he is capable of great depth and range if he chooses to set aside projects like The Do-Over and The Ridiculous 6. At his age, it may be a wise move to find more independent films like this and pull off what Stiller is doing with films like this and Brad’s Status which is currently playing in theaters.
There may not be a whole lot of opportunities to see this film in the theater based on Netflix’s current marketing strategy, but there will be an opportunity to stream it by October 13th on one of the largest media platforms operating right now. For fans of Noah Baumbach, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) doesn’t have the charm and appeal of Mistress America, or While We’re Young, but it does provide a very layered story about family dysfunction that will have you smiling, even in the darker moments, because you will recognize the situations and tension that exists at some level in every family dynamic at one time or another, though they may not compare with the pig-headedness of Harold Meyerowitz. An excellent cast gives great performances all-around. While there shouldn’t be a sequel, Baumbach should definitely try to bring this cast back together for a future project, especially if Greta Gerwig is able to re-join the fray….and it wouldn’t hurt if it took place in New York.