The Meyerowitz Stories
Noah Baumbach offers up The Meyerowitz Stories, an emotionally astute comedy-drama concerning a dysfunctional New York family featuring Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler – the latter's performance is so good it might spell a comeback
The latest film from Noah Baumbach, modern American cinema’s premiere chronicler of neurotic, middle-class dysfunction, follows the lives of the Meyerowitz family. The episodic structure takes us first to stay-at-home dad Danny (Sandler), whose daughter is due to head off to the same art college her paternal grandfather, Harold (Hoffman), a sculptor of minor repute, taught at years before.
Anxious at her departure and recently separated from his wife, Danny also has to contend with his cantankerous father, who is living with his third wife, the drink-addled Maureen (Emma Thompson). Harold takes every opportunity to make it painfully clear that Danny is second fiddle to his younger brother, Matthew, a successful LA-based accountant played by Stiller; Harold’s middle child, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), barely gets a look in.
Following on from the disappointing While We’re Young, which also featured Stiller, Baumbach crafts a story with heart and wit, centred on the pains of sibling rivalry. Devoid of the irony of his recent films starring Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America), this feels more mature, more at ease with itself. Perhaps the director has shed his interest in stories of bright, 20-something trendy types and is becoming more focused on the emotional battles of middle-age.
Hoffman’s grey-bearded Harold, referred to by his wife as “The Dad”, is anything but a father to Danny or Jean. While Harold happily travels miles for lunch dates with Matthew, the other children are there to be useful, organising shows to boost the sculptor's ego and finally give his work the recognition (in his eyes) it deserves – most of Harold's time is spent questioning why he isn’t as successful as his contemporaries.
The crux of the film revolves around an exploration of success and the difficulties of parental expectation, especially if that parent is an artist. Danny, who is something of a sad-sack, remains desperate for approval, despite the neglect he has received over the years. In Sandler’s hands, there is a subdued anger, but also sadness. It's a performance that plucks at the heartstrings in the moments he shares with his daughter and when he tries to connect with his father, while also reminding us he's a talented comic; Sandler's turn is so good it could kickstart a minor comeback after his years in the wilderness.
Stiller's Matthew, meanwhile, has more bite. Railing against the attention that was lavished upon him, he's deliberately constructed a life that's diametrically opposite to that of his old dad's. But Matthew fears the apple doesn't fall far from the tree: worries about his inadequacies as a father linger in the background, and he is also aware that his marriage is in free fall. The two-hander moments between Stiller and Sandler are remarkably effective, but the real showstopper scene is one shared between the three siblings. Elizabeth Marvel, despite limited screen time, is the movie’s standout, echoing the neglect her character has received all her life.
The Meyerowitz Stories is a comic-tragedy delivered with a lightness of touch, never delving into high drama. It's a solid addition to Baumbach’s canon.