***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language, nudity, and some sexual content)
Released: October 13, 2017
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Emma Thompson
It can be exciting to see filmmakers try new things or push their own boundaries, but there’s something to be said for a director doubling down on his or her own wheelhouse. Within that, some of the best, most confident and exciting movies are forged, and occasionally the most personal.
What makes The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) particularly special is that it not only emerges from writer/director Noah Baumbach’s most natural creative instincts; it hits the visceral sweet spot for its leads, too. Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, and Ben Stiller seem born to play father and sons. The sister and daughter aren’t shortchanged either.
If The Squid and the Whale is Baumbach’s best work to date (and it is), then the The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) transforms that film’s template by removing its cynicism without castrating its honest bite, yet maintains its comic sophistication.
The Squid and the Whale was tale of family dysfunction set against the backdrop of New York academia, with a father who longs for the embrace of cultural elites and the two sons who are burdened by that ambition. Jeff Daniels’ failed writer is replaced by Hoffman’s failed sculptor, each having settled for teaching careers at top collegiate institutions. The teenage sons are now grown-ups.
If Squid was a release of semi-autobiographical venting, then Meyerowitz is Baumbach’s act of reconciliation.
It’s certainly no random choice to have Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz be a failed sculptor, because it serves as a perfect metaphor to his role as a father. The dysfunctional atmosphere he created, born of parental neglect mixed with high expectations, has molded three very different adults.
Sandler’s Danny is an amiable failure, Stiller’s Matthew is highly successful but living on the opposite coast, and sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) landed somewhere in between, stable but still messed up.
A series of events brings them all together, exhuming unresolved conflicts, dashed hopes, and regrets. It’s a familiar formula, but for Baumbach it comes from a very real place. Now, with more time and distance (it’s been over a decade since Squid), Baumbach is able tear off some emotional band-aids as an act of love, not spite.
The Meyerowitzes are a family grappling with the legacy of its patriarch, a bitter intellectual who impacted his students while scarring his kids. The surface-level results are recognizable, but Baumbach and his cast give them a unique specificity.
Sandler’s Danny, for instance, has a wonderful relationship with his college age daughter, Eliza, not a strained one. They are genuinely close. Instead of Danny repeating his dad’s mistakes, he’s intentionally avoided them. Sandler and Grace Van Patten have some of the sweetest, warmest moments of the movie (and of any Baumbach film). Danny may have failed professionally, but as a parent he got it right.
Sandler is a revelation here, even when considering his formidable, fragile turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. In that, Sandler was able to hide behind that film’s perverse, demented quirk. Here, in Baumbach’s naturalism, he’s completely out in the open, and Sandler lays everything bare.
Matthew is certainly the most functional, normal one of the bunch, but neither Stiller nor the script have to force his latent baggage. It emerges progressively, organically (and yes, comically), from a person who’s run from his issues but mistaken that for having dealt with them, climaxing in one of Stiller’s best-ever on-screen moments. Elizabeth Marvel elevates the eccentric sister role, too, and takes full advantage of the scenes she’s given, but this (understandably) is primarily a story of father and sons.
And Dustin Hoffman? Actors dream of late-in-life roles like this one, a character rich in his neurosis yet oblivious to its severity, creating a sharp-tongued non-PC narcissist who thinks his intellect absolves all of his defaults.
Hoffman takes all of these delicious layers and, instead of chewing the scenery, makes them spontaneous, lived in, self-evident, and completely unconscious, creating tension and disaster all to hilarious effect. If a performance can break through from the Netflix streaming ghetto to an actual Oscar nomination, it’s this one.
Not everything works here, namely Eliza’s pursuit of film studies. Her short subjects are little more than French New Wave pornos, so they’re limp as satire and not credible in substantiating her as truly gifted (something the film really tries to sell), but that’s a rare overreach in a movie that’s otherwise firing on astute, insightful cylinders.
The comic and the tragic often intermingle here, and that balance allows truly sad, poignant moments to pop up, grab us, and resonate. This is certainly Baumbach’s most sentimental film, but it’s never schmaltzy. The Meyerowitz Stories makes frank observations of life and family, but with wise notes of self-deprecation and grace.