[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from the Cannes Film Festival; The Meyerowitz Stores (New and Selected) is now available on Netflix and playing in select theaters]
The headlines you may have already read about Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) have predominantly focused on the performance of Adam Sandler and that’s sort of a shame. This is not meant to diminish Sandler’s work in the least. The veteran comedy star hasn’t delivered a performance of this caliber since Judd Apatow’s Funny People almost eight years ago. The downside to all the focus on Sandler’s latest bit of proof that he can, in fact, care about his craft is that it may take the spotlight off the startling work of his co-stars, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman, two performances that may very well haunt you after the film comes to an end.
Baumbach’s latest is a painfully honest look at the relationships between adult men and their fathers, relationships that rarely get any easier as grey hairs increasingly begin to appear in the beards and hair of both men. The story of the Meyerowitz clan unspools over multiple chapters in the life of its members as we slowly learn the ins and outs of their distinct dysfunctions. There’s Danny (Sandler), the stay at home dad whose life is in transition as his talented daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten, holding her own), heads to Bard College and his divorce with his wife is finalized. Then there’s his father, Harold (Hoffman), who was once a well-known sculptor who currently lives with Maureen (Emma Thompson, wonderfully restrained), his third wife. Amongst his many transgressions, Harold makes his pride for his son Matthew (Stiller) a constantly painful refrain for Danny. Harold is headstrong and cutting, to the point that he makes it difficult for his children to love or even engage with him.
Third, we’ve got Matthew, who has made his bones as a successful business manager and has lived in Los Angeles most of his life to no doubt create physical distance with a father he believes will never give him the respect he deserves. He constantly refers to Danny and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel, fantastic) as his half-brother and sister in earshot of both of them to emphasize the fact they are estranged and on different levels as people from his poisoned perspective. And finally we have Jean, who is single, childless, and inexplicably loyal to her father, despite his consistent, seemingly unintentional disrespect for her. She’s arguably the most heartbreaking character in Baumbach’s tapestry. When her brothers learn of a childhood event that scared her they are perplexed why she still is loyal to their father, she replies simply, “I’m a decent person. It’s what you do.”
The relationship between the siblings transforms after Harold suffers a brain hemorrhage and is hospitalized. There is quibbling over selling Harold’s valuable Manhattan apartment. They work together to include his work in an exhibition at Bard where he was once a member of the faculty. They may not find peace with their father, but they may find peace with each other.
This may all sound like the most serious and dry of dramas, but it’s not. Baumbach has a unique skill (likely aided by the participation of Stiller and Sandler) of including humor at the most opportune times. Harold is also the foil for much of that and it’s a huge testament to Hoffman’s talent that it never seems out of character. Indeed, after a number of ignorable performances from the legendary Hoffman, to watch him give such depth, nuance, and humor to a deeply unlikable character borders on the revelatory.
Stiller once again proves to have a unique rapport with Baumbach that brings out a side of the actor we rarely see when he’s directing himself. Late in the film, Matthew has an emotional breakdown and Stiller shows more vulnerability on screen in this sequence than this critic can remember ever coming from the comedian before. And naturally, when the film needs a light touch, he summons an abundant amount comic relief both with and without Sandler to aide him.
And then we’re back to Sandler, the universally disrespected comedy icon. There is something on point about his character here that you wonder if he even realized what Baumbach was offering him. He’s playing a man stuck in the past, but is good at what he does and trying to do his best for his family even if he can’t get the praise or love from his peers he deserves. He’s wonderfully superb when Danny needs to quietly fester and is gracious in stepping to the side to allow Hoffman, Stiller and Marvel to shine.
While Baumbach has painted a remarkable portrait of this contemporary family, the film is not without its faults. More than any of his recent scripts, Baumbach often has his characters explicitly state blatant exposition in the context of a conversation. One or two times would go almost unnoticed but it happens so often it’s simply jarring. Moreover, there are perhaps one or two too many stories in the script. It may seem like a critic trope to note a film is too long, but there is such a blatantly natural ending point Baumbach continues past it’s hard to forgive. Nevertheless, for those who wonder if their relationship with their parent(s) will improve over time, The Meyerowtiz Stories (New and Selected) may turn out to be something of an unintentional cathartic release.