Already streaming on Netflix and now getting a limited theatrical run (in Chicago, at the Landmark Century Center Cinema) The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is the latest from writer-director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, While We’re Young, The Squid and the Whale), in which he once again pairs with actor Ben Stiller to tell the story of a dysfunctional family attempting to find some semblance of connection when a crisis brings them together.
With each member of the Meyerowitz family (a father and three grown children) getting their own “chapter” of the movie, the film is easily Baumbach’s most novel-esque. Though the dialogue often doesn’t sound exactly the way people speak, I could easily imagine myself being fully absorbed in a book with similar writing.
Stiller plays plays estate planner Matthew, eager to help his aging artist father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) sell his New York home so he can move into a more comfortable place outside of the city with his latest wife Maureen (an almost unrecognizable Emma Thompson). Harold has convinced himself that outside forces (including rival artists, such as a very successful one played by Judd Hirsch) have kept his career from taking off, when in fact it may just be that he’s not as good as the others. Harold is a terrible listener, was likely a less-than-stellar father, and is a disagreeable patient when he falls ill later in the film. Still, his children dote on him with as much enthusiasm as they resent him for cheating on their mother (Candice Bergen) and ruining their family.
In the film’s biggest surprise, Adam Sandler plays son Danny, whose life is barely holding together as he attempts to get his daughter Eliza (newcomer Grace Van Patten) ready for college. She’s a would-be film student, and we catch glimpses of a couple of her short films, all of which seem to feature her in various states of undress, simulating sex. Her Uncle Matthew seems impressed.
Rounding out the siblings is Jean (the extraordinary Elizabeth Marvel), whose primary role seems to be as a stabilizer of the family. All three are planning to help their father with an exhibition of his work (prominently featured in a group show, which Harold hates), and the stress of that, Harold’s illness, and the drumming up of family history dredges up familiar struggles among everyone. This is Baumbach’s sweet spot, with no emotional stone unturned, no dull sting on any criticism, and humor so dark you can barely see through it.
There are moments of hope as well. Danny reconnects with an old crush, Loretta (Rebecca Miller), the daughter of Hirsch’s character. Matthew might actually close the deal on the house to some very rich clients; and even Maureen seems sensible in her own flighty way, determined to make certain Harold’s comfort and well being are not forgotten in the chaos. The scenes between Stiller and Sandler are genuinely authentic as brothers who wish they were closer, but time and circumstances didn’t quite make that possible (they also had different mothers, which made for a bit of a rivalry in their younger days). There’s one sequence where their bickering literally transforms them into two brawling school children, rolling around on the grass, throwing punches, simply because they can’t control their outrage at their father.
Baumbach’s observations are keen, pointed and often quite hilarious, and the things that this family focuses on and obsesses over may drive you nuts. But it’s an honest and true profile of a family that is in crisis but has learned to navigate it rather than fix it. The Meyerowitz Stories is one of my absolute favorites of the filmmaker’s works, and is right up there with Punch Drunk Love as a work that reminds us that, when he’s placed in the hands of a credible filmmaker, Adam Sandler can do very good work. Any director that can make that happen is a damn miracle worker in my book.