“Y’know, back then, I was the headliner,” Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) insists, to no one in particular. His old pal R.J. (Judd Hirsch) is the subject of a big retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art, and Harold is feeling as though his work – and that’s how it’s always referenced, by himself and his family, “the work” – isn’t being properly appreciated. He isn’t getting a MoMA retrospective; hell, the college where he taught for decades is only offering him prominent placement in a faculty showcase. “Group show, no,” he announces. “That’s essentially an insult!”
One of the most painful yet undeniable truths captured by The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), the new film by Noah Baumbach, is the specific experience of being an also-ran, an almost-famous, how that breeds a particular kind of personal and professional resentment, resulting in both a general unpleasantness and an overall dislike for pretty much everything that anyone else creates. We met a father like that in Baumbach’s quietly masterful The Squid and the Whale, and Harold Meyerowitz shares some of that characters qualities (most notably, casual, unprompted critiques like “I find Maugham to be skillful without being an artist”). But if Baumbach is returning to that film’s preoccupations, he’s also approaching them from a more mature perspective, suggesting a way to get past the kind of paralyzing anger our bad parents can create. The new film about getting older, about coming to terms with who these people are, and figuring out how to be your own person anyway.
As suggested by the title, Baumbach breaks his narrative into a series of short stories, some of them focused on individual members of this extended, dysfunctional family. There is Danny (Adam Sandler), whom we first meet as he’s trying to find a parking spot in Manhattan, which is about as savvy an example of “characterization through action” as I can imagine; he’s a man in transition, sending his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college, an event that he and his wife were waiting for before ending their marriage. So he has both empty nest and newly single syndromes happening, a fusion that doesn’t exactly create a personality of confidence and strength.
His sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) first appears with the line “I made cookies, but I stepped in dog shit,” and rarely has an introduction been more apt. She’s a wallflower, though as we find out more about her, it seems not entirely by her choosing. “You guys will never understand what it’s like to be me in this family,” she says late in the film, and by the point she says it, we nod in agreement, like family members ourselves.
Their half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) was always his father’s favorite, not just to Danny’s chagrin, but Matthew’s: “I got your focus,” he tells Harold, “which fucked me up in a whole other way.” In sharp contrast to his half-brother, Matthew is perceived as a success: he’s wealthy, has his own business, works with celebrities, has a wife and small child, and (most importantly) lives far, far away, in Los Angeles. He only makes it into town occasionally, and only for business; in perhaps the film’s finest and funniest extended sequence, he tries to squeeze in a quick lunch with his father, and it turns into a series of perceived slights, mild irritations, and changing locations. The son is chagrined. The father is oblivious.
In that sequence and elsewhere, Baumbach displays his acumen at writing people who talk at each other rather than with each other – who wait for the other person to finish speaking so they can start, and eventually just get tired of waiting. Both Harold and Matthew want to impress each other with all the impressive things they have happening, but neither has the patience to care about anything else; they just end up just talking about themselves over each other, in a cruel burlesque of “conversation.”
Baumbach, on the other hand, has always been a good listener; here, he nails the little passive-aggressive pleasantries that family members yield like shivs (Harold’s fourth wife Maureen, beautifully played by Emma Thompson, makes an offhand reference to “us not being the A-list parents and all”), and the way their confrontations can escalate from mild criticisms to ripped-out truths to, finally, clumsy fist-fights. (Just my family? Ok.) And his writing has rarely achieved the grace of the art exhibition opening, which turns into a group therapy session – giving Matthew the breakdown he’s been suppressing for decades, playing it straight, and then finding the laughter after, very carefully. It’s a balancing act so delicate, you all but hold your breath.
Stiller is a marvel in that scene, and throughout the film. As he gets older, in his work with Baumbach and films like Brad’s Status, he continues to find new angles on his neurotic yuppie persona, a rich sense of poignancy and pathos. And it should no longer come as news when Adam Sandler is good in a film, but the sheer wretchedness of his recent output probably has something to do with it; that he’s now churning out the modern equivalent of programmers for Netflix makes The Meyerowitz Stories’ appearance there all the more effective. Baumbach takes full advantage (as Paul Thomas Anderson, Jason Reitman, and Judd Apatow did before him) of Sandler’s keen ability to project wounded vulnerability, but it’s not a sad schlub performance – he all but vibrates with love for his daughter, and the warmth of their relationship is a sly reminder that Matthew’s money doesn’t make him the only successful sibling.
Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg co-starred Stiller and Greta Gerwig, and in the years since, he’s rotated those two actors, in projects of increasingly disparate tone. The Gerwig films – which she co-wrote – were the sunny and funny Frances Ha and Mistress America, while Greenberg and the Stiller-fronted While We’re Young were more acidic and cynical about their characters in particular and human nature in general. Now, with The Meyerowitz Stories, he’s fused those dispositions; these characters are broken in many ways, and nasty in others. But Baumbach’s generosity towards them results in a complicated tenderness, one that’s not simple, but is certainly satisfying. “I know it’s hard!” Matthew tells his half-brother. “It’s hard for all of us! Get it together!” It’s not that easy, of course, and Danny knows it, and Matthew does too. But we could all try to make it a little easier.
“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is out Friday in limited release, and streaming on Netflix.