Noah Baumbach once said that all his films are ruminations on failure. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), his latest work, is a compelling addition to this oeuvre.
While Woody Allen plods into his late period with yearly production credits, the title for New York’s eminent filmmaker has most probably passed to Noah Baumbach, though he still lacks Allen’s notoriety.
At 47, the Brooklynite’s reputation of Noah Baumbach has not been made on any one run away credit but rather the many mixed highlights of his career. His only mainstream successes have been the co-authored scripts of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and The Life Aquatic (2004) – not counting his stint as a script fixer for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012). But, like Mr. Allen, Baumbach has elicited a cult following as a director for his independent works rife with nudging cynicism and comedic neurosis.
Baumbach once said that all his films, more or less, are ruminations on failure, especially artistic failure. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), his latest work, is a compelling addition to this oeuvre.
Like his collaborator Wes Anderson, Baumbach has a penchant for beginning movies like novels, and, as the complete title (New and Selected) would indicate, the chapters of the narrative are broken into actual chapters – lacking only the pastels and colorful music of Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums (2001) to set the tone. Actually, the two films would be a little uncanny to watch side-by-side. Meyerowitz is another bookish evocation of a dysfunctional family spread across New York City, but with Dustin Hoffman stepping in for Gene Hackman as the patriarch. They both even have Ben Stiller playing the most disgruntled son!
But where the Tenenbaums revealed in an abundant, nearly-watercolored house and donned costumes now seen at liberal arts Halloween parties, the Meyerowtizses revel in the quotidian. Not so much hair-brained as unaware, invasive, and slightly broken – with surprizing uniformity.
Stiller plays Matthew Meyerowitz, a slightly more approachable and successful version of his character Greenberg in Baumbach’s 2010 film by the same name. He is brothers with Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who fill out the roles of Dustin Hoffman’s ambivalent adult children. Hoffman plays Harold Meyerowitz, a sculptor who never really made it, and he lives in the Lower East Side with his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson), a quasi-functioning alcoholic. All variously estranged from Harold, the children begin to regroup around their father when a serious illness sets in. The first to arrive is Danny, the youngest and perhaps most neglected, as he drops his daughters Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off for college in the city.
The film’s actors are robust, and, in a story which worms through lifelong relationships and instabilities, they play an especially large role in the success of the film. Hoffman, for his part, is a spectacle; his work with dismissive narcissism may win him an Academy Award this year. It’s a shame, therefore, that he’s written to be equaled by Sandler and Stiller, especially when the female characters fade further into the background as the movie progresses.
Harold’s sons each have their repertoire of insecurities and nervous tics, but watching the two sons compete for favoritism – at one point building to a literal fist fight on Eliza’s college quad – is a reminder that both actors have had long careers of whining away their dignity. Both Sandler and Stiller have cinematic connotations as comedians who aren’t that funny, and while Stiller has attempted transitioning into less overtly silly roles (no more so than with Baumbach), Adam Sandler’s casting gives the movie a taint of slapstick which he can’t resist inflating. It’s, therefore, a shame that for a while at least, he seems to be cast as the reasonable one.
In fact, what makes this movie stand outside the long shadow of familial dysfunction cast by Woody Allen and Wes Anderson – the clearest indication that Baumbach isn’t looking to sell out of his role as New York’s indie darling – is the simple fact that none of the characters are all that appealing. It’s a note that should give some viewers pause if they’re scrolling through Netflix (which bought the film in April) and see a new Adam Sandler/Ben Stiller production under the “Comedy” section.
Audiences pining for something akin to Grown Ups 3 will be rewarded only once, in the aforementioned dumb fight scene between Matt and Danny – funny enough if you like watching people get hurt. But the real humor in this film is in the subtleties which emerge by viewing the characters objectively for long periods of time, the way they change stories in multiple retellings, the things they hide and the white lies they tell their intimates. Exploiting these character weaknesses is also the film’s strongest argument, and brings its brightest moments. What is family drama but dishonesty in the name of self-preservation?
Throughout his career, Baumbach’s characters have always ended up in comedic situations, but they themselves are invariably more imbued with a tragic sense – failures first and foremost. Sometimes they’re able to do right by themselves, as Greta Gerwig did by the end of Frances Ha (2012) when they take their torment and make something beautiful. In the case of The Meyerowitz Stories, however, the family can only try to do right by each other. Their success, like the success of the film, is fair to middling.
The Meyerowitz Stories will have its North American premiere at New York Film Festival.