Much emphasis is placed on love being the tie that bonds, even though there are many other perfectly valid kinship knots out there. Familial connections derived from anger and resentment, passive aggression and embittered tolerance, these too can be a worthwhile place to build hearth and home. They’re also tribal tidings that are ripe for the most exacting of dry-rage humor. For proof, look no further than Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which can often play like best type of family dinner: one where everyone’s had too much to drink and is ready for a real chat.
Indeed, after working with muse and frequent collaborator Greta Gerwig on several projects, Baumbach refocuses his attention as a writer and director on men, and in this case particularly aging men. With Meyerowitz we have three generations of New York intellectualism and high-minded artistic aspirations, however this does not necessarily improve anyone in the clan’s health—but it can make for a fairly heartwarming and deliriously funny cult. One with Dustin Hoffman as the impresario and his adult children as the hapless kool-aid drinkers that can never get far from the damage papa has wrought before needing to return to his side as he gets up there in years.
Truthfully the story of two friendly but distant half-brothers, Danny (Adam Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller), The Meyerowitz Stories gives both comedians a very fresh and welcome chance to prove they are still actors underneath all the mediocre sequels and low-effort laughers. In meticulously adult roles, they play grownups who are less man-children than they are men permanently scarred by childhood. How could they not be? Despite having different mothers, and one being the neglected son (Sandler) while the other receiving obsessively vicarious attention (Stiller), they remain linked by living adulthoods defined by their relationship to Harold (Hoffman).
As Bambauch mused at the New York Film Festival, in Harold’s household, art replaced religion as the driving force of faith and communion. Mind you in this situation Harold is God, preacher of the good word, crucified messiah, and definitely a trigger-happy Abraham. It’s why in spite of Danny being touted as a musical prodigy, he gave up the piano in his 20s to raise his remarkably well-adjusted daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). But now Eliza’s going to college where she’ll become a filmmaker, and being freshly divorced, Danny must move in with his father and his father’s fourth wife Maureen (a wonderfully loopy Emma Thompson). This is all the more ironic as Danny and his still painfully shy middle-age sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), never spent much time in their father’s Midtown home while growing up.
That honor was bestowed solely on his favorite child, the equally miserable Matt. While Stiller’s character has had major success as essentially a glorified manager of rich artists’ assets, Matt is still in some way running from his father on the other side of the country in LA. Not that it makes coming home to New York any easier, especially after Harold’s general misanthropy is heightened by a sudden health scare that brings the whole family together in a hospital.
Over the years, Baumbach’s strength as a storyteller has been in how he essays dysfunction, be it on an introverted level, between old collegiate relations, or even between a few family members. Thus The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is on some level his symphony of well-mannered belligerence, and the sweet harmony of kin and misery. Dividing his film into chapters following each of the Meyerowitz men—and one phenomenal entry from forgotten daughter Jean’s point-of-view—Baumbach relays the strangeness of this family with all the affability of a peaceful brunch at the local delicatessen. Granted that sitdown could end with Hoffman’s paterfamilias stealing a glass of wine from the other table’s snooty patrons (an actual scene in the movie), but that just makes for a better meal, no?
By building across multiple generations, and in a very modern context where one family can consist of three children from several wives, Meyerowitz appears to be Bambuach’s most ambitious movie. Yet he disarmingly keeps things intimate and silly as personalities clash in bizarre and often hilarious ways. Whenever one of the men attempts to have a big speech to list his grievances with a father or a son, the film cruelly cuts him off mid-speech/whining. Hence how Baumbach keeps the tone always up while the characters are frequently being pushed down.
And by pitting Sandler against Hoffman as two of those three men, the film’s casting performs something of a wonder. To be sure, Hoffman has the best part in the film, practically chewing the fine wood paneling off his erudite Manhattan home with vigor as Harold continues to revel in his lifetime of woes for not being respected as a genius. He is especially sensitive about his far more successful frenemy, L.J. (Judd Hirsch). But with his sons, Hoffman finds sharp foils.
As the beleaguered child who can never get any respect, Stiller is in familiar territory yet gets to play it with a sincerer insecurity and frequent melancholy. Sandler is, however, the one who shows a deeper relationship with Harold, if only because it’s obvious there wasn’t much of one until Matthew moved away.
In a career best performance, Sandler still might struggle in his big moment with Stiller when the brothers finally air their issues, but on the whole nails the damaged anger and love as Danny. This wistful win includes several musical interludes where Danny and his adult daughter Eliza, and then later Danny and Harold, sing original compositions about their family (and which Sandler apparently co-wrote with Baumbach). These moments above the piano bench encapsulate entire relationships and the dynamics of three ages of Meyerowitz artistry—as well as suggesting the youngest one might be the first to climb the next wrung of the intelligentsia ladder that Harold so covets. For Eliza’s student films-within-the-film are certainly… something.
In that vein, and despite the focus on the men, it is the women in this world who often get the most emotional heft in unexpected soliloquies, such as when Marvel is able to steal the entire middle of the movie from Sandler and Stiller, or when Candice Bergen makes a surprisingly poignant cameo as Ex-Wife, the Second.
The Meyerowitz Stories is definitely a New York cocktail party yarn. But the breadth and levity of its vision should also make this Netflix release the most widely appealing and universal of Baumbach’s films to date, allowing the tale to play just as well in Midwest waterholes as it does in gala openings at the Met.
The Meyerowitz Stories screened at the Cannes and New York Film Festivals, and premieres on Netflix on Oct. 13.