The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
Written & Directed by Noah Baumbach
In the same way, Woody Allen made his career focused on movies about intellectual types in New York, Noah Baumbach has taken that motif and added a genuine examination of family. Allen’s characters were always nebbish & neurotic but always seemed to be swinging singles. Baumbach’s characters are caught up in familial dysfunction. The Meyerowitz Stories delivers its narrative at a fast pace and will remind viewers of one of Baumbach’s contemporaries and sometimes collaborator, Wes Anderson. The picture is a more grounded take on the near fairytale-like world of The Royal Tenenbaums, complete with Ben Stiller as one of the siblings. Though this may sound incredibly derivative, the film has a familiar & seemingly forgotten tone you don’t find in movies these days.
The picture begins with Danny (Adam Sandler) bringing his daughter to visit Harold (Dustin Hoffman), the patriarch of this complicated and conflicted clan. Much like Punch-Drunk Love, this is a Sandler performance that makes you wish he would abandon those embarrassing broad comedies and settle into smaller work. At this point, he has to have enough money to make things more than comfortable for himself and his family, he doesn’t need 20 million dollar paychecks anymore. Sandler brings his trademark outbursts but mixes them with a more layered character. Danny is the forgotten oldest son of Harold, replaced with Matthew (Ben Stiller) came along in Harold’s next marriage. Danny is a talented musician who just failed to ever make something of himself, the movie pointing to living in the shadow of Harold as the culprit.
Harold is a picture of intellectual arrogance, a sculptor, and a retired art professor who has a plethora of excuses for his own failings. When confronted with the reality and consequences of his actions, Harold will quickly ignore and shift the conversation in a new direction. A lunch between Harold and Matthew showcases this technique to a frustrating degree, with Harold refusing to go into their lunch spot because he was turned away (he got there before the reservation time). As Matthew tries to fill his father in on his family and life on the West coast, Harold becomes obsessed with the customer at the next table, convinced he is showing disrespect towards the old man.
Matthew is in the process of selling Harold’s brownstone apartment and his work so that his father can move to the country with his current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). This puts Matthew in conflict with Danny, who, while having his accomplishments diminished by his pop, is sentimental about the legacy of Harold’s art. Danny is also the most like his father, repeating the punchlines of his jokes and projecting the same deflective arrogance when confronted by his family. Both Danny and Harold have neglected injuries that get them into trouble by the end of the film, but it’s only Danny that ends up showing growth from what he goes through.
For a film about an unhappy family, Baumbach manages to keep things light and jaunty. These people may not be perfect, and it may take a considerable amount of hardship & setback for them to learn, but they do love each other. Their flaws are part of their personalities, and they get carried away easily. When Danny and Matthew learn from sister Jean that an old family friend exposed himself to her on a beach trip when she was a teenager, they jump into action demolishing his car. This action fills them with an adrenaline rush, but when they present this information to Jean, she chastises them for wrecking the car of an elderly man who obviously has dementia now, that nothing they did is capable of helping her with that trauma.
Where Harold chooses to ignore the bad & uncomfortable things, Matthew and Danny want to meet them head on to mixed consequences. Will this family ever fix their collective problems? Likely not, but who in life ever really does? It’s up to the characters to weigh their conflicts and tensions against being without those family members. It’s clear some of them grow throughout the picture, but they won’t permanently abandon anyone, just take some time off.