The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) **** / *****
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Danny), Ben Stiller (Matthew), Dustin Hoffman (Harold), Elizabeth Marvel (Jean Meyerowitz), Emma Thompson (Maureen), Grace Van Patten (Eliza Meyerowitz), Candice Bergen (Julia), Rebecca Miller (Loretta Shapiro), Judd Hirsch (L.J. Shapiro), Adam Driver (Randy).
Noah Baumbach has softened a little bit in the 12 years since he made his first truly great film – The Squid and the Whale. That films – and the two that followed (Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg) were fairly harsh and unforgiving of its characters – punishing them, and at times, it seemed, punishing those in the audience who were watching. The softening started perhaps a little in Greenberg – his first collaboration with Greta Gerwig, who delivered a witty, funny, humane and overall tremendous performance in that film – and co-wrote and starred in two other Baumbach films – Frances Ha and Mistress America as well (the other Baumbach film during that time, While We’re Young is perhaps Baumbach’s cranky side coming through – as it’s a story about how annoying millennials can be when you’re older – and could be read as personal, given the age difference between him and Gerwig, who have been together for a while). But I noticed his softening most in his latest film – The Meyerowitz Stories – because in it, Baumbach offers at least a little forgiveness and understanding to characters he never used to be able to do that with. The aging father in the film – Harold, played in his best performance in years by Dustin Hoffman – is as insufferable as any of Baumbach’s other patriarchs – but it’s tempered with more understanding. There is also, undeniably, more sympathy for Harold’s children – on the late side of middle age, but still competing against for the affection of a man who is too self-involved to notice them.
There are three Meyerowitz children – Danny (Adam Sandler), is the oldest, and the only one who was the product of Harold’s second marriage. Danny is getting divorced and sending his beloved daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college at the same time. To a certain extent, Danny is another of Sandler’s overgrown man children – he has a temper, and can yell as loud as any Sandler character, but it’s more tempered with sadness and regret this time around – and less borderline psychotic. It’s a reminder of just how good Sandler can be when he works with a good director who pushes him. Danny’s half siblings are Matthew (Ben Stiller) – who fled to L.A. as soon as he could, and became a successful financial planner to the rich and famous (Adam Driver has a great cameo as one of his clients). Matthew worries more than a little that he’s too like his father. Then there is Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), whose primary family role seems to be peacekeeper. It’s too bad that Jean is the most underwritten of the major roles in the film, because Marvel is fantastic as a woman who allows the men in her life to treat her as an afterthought, and yet still be there for them (“Because that’s what a good person does”). They all playing supporting roles in the life of Harold (Hoffman) – who was once a sculptor of some (limited) renown, who believes that she is still doing the best work of his career – after his retirement from teaching. He lives with Mrs. Meyerowitz #4 – Maureen (Emma Thompson), playing a kind of drunken hippie – a role that doesn’t require someone of Thompson’s immense skills, but benefits from them anyway.
The title of movie evokes a short story collection – and to an extent, so does the structure of Baumbach’s movie, which concentrates on one sibling at a time, before bringing them together once Harold gets ill (the structure also kind of resembles Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – which Baumbach tried, unsuccessfully, to turn into a TV series a few years ago. The film shows moments in the lives of this family, not so much as they grow, but as they come to accept their place. Harold will never change – he is incapable of it, and doesn’t have the self-awareness to even see the damage he’s done. Hoffman is terrific here, digging into that a little bit.
The maturation of Baumbach helps his own art here. I still think I prefer The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding to The Meyerowitz Stories – yet I also think that the kind of anger and punishing streak in those films would have eventually grown stale, and overly harsh had Baumbach made a career out of them. Eventually, you have to forgive your parents – even if they are assholes. The Baumbach who made The Squid and the Whale didn’t know that – the one who made this film, does.