Noah Baumbach knows families. Not feel-good crap or five-hankie manipulated drama. Baumbach families are a lot like the ones we share, with real awkwardness, back-handed affection and incidental trauma wound up together in the loving bonds of our flesh and blood. Despite its precious title, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) captures its titular extended clan with a disarmingly frank gaze. Debuting on Netflix today, it’s among Baumbach’s best films.
Dustin Hoffman is Harold, the patriarch of the Meyerowitz family. He’s a minor sculptor at the end of his career, the kind that can get a piece into the Whitney collection, but the Whitney’s lost track of where it is. He’s an eloquent curmudgeon with a long list of grievances, chief among them his disappointment in his son Danny (Adam Sandler). For his part, Danny is kind of a well-meaning schmuck, a failed musician who decided to stay home and raise his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). He and his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) are both shy and downtrodden, tho when pushed Danny can let loose that patented Sandler anger.
As much as Harold criticizes Danny, he puts his son Matthew (Ben Stiller) on a pedestal. The product of an earlier Meyerowitz marriage, Matthew’s carved out a life for himself starkly different from his domineering artist father. A successful financial manager for celebrities, he’s based in L.A., far away from his father’s looming NYC presence. Back in the city on business, Matthew’s forced to confront his own stewing resentments.
The Meyerowitz Stories is structured as a series of chapters, each nominally from a character’s perspective. We see the charming interaction between Danny and his daughter Eliza, as she’s about to head to college. And Harold’s dismissiveness of his children is quickly revealed, even as Danny and Jean push to get Harold’s work included in a group show at the college where he teaches (“a group show” Harold sneers).
Throughout, everyone is talking past each other. It’s almost impossible for anyone in this self-absorbed collective to see past their own neuroses and actually hear the problems and thoughts of the person in front of them. The family’s sins are more in the vein of omission than commission, things that should’ve been said or done but never were.
Baumbach handles this complexity with the slow accretion of interactions, quick vignettes and uncomfortably amusing longer set pieces. Matthew’s lunch with Harold is a classic series of wrong-headed misunderstandings, father and son rambling in tandem even as Harold takes issue with the man at another table encroaching on their space. Danny takes Harold to the show of a much more successful contemporary artist, and they’re constantly cross-purpose, even as they stick out like sore thumbs, Harold insisting they go in ludicrously overdressed black tie.
The cast is uniformly brilliant. Hoffman’s Harold is utterly unsentimental, a tendentious prick nursing a long-wounded ego. Ben Stiller’s competitive unease is sharply acerbic, while Adam Sandler brings more wist than usual to his stunted boy-man. Emma Thompson’s underused but amusing as Harold’s drunken current wife, while Elizabeth Marvel’s wallflower Jean very definitely has her own reasons for shying away from just about everything.
The biggest insight of the film’s many offhand revelations is the way in which we make certain experiences into a lens, and through that lens filter everything else that happens to us. But those core experiences are memories, just stories, and stories are fanciful, and often wrong. Danny’s and Matthew’s competitive relationship with each other and their father is complex and often bitterly amusing. Ever so gradually, they learn that their feelings and even their received childhood history are muddled and wrong.
Danny’s daughter Eliza is a promising artist herself. Her zany, very sexual student films are a comedic highlight, as is the arty family’s blasé reception. Harold and Danny and Matthew have made a lot of messes in their lives. But Danny’s done well with Eliza. Family baggage can never be totally overcome. But each new generation gets the chance to do a little better. The Meyerowitz Stories perfectly captures this dynamic in all its aching, maddening hilarity.