Family Matters

At the movies: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Noah Baumbach’s latest, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which dropped October 13th on Netflix, will certainly stand the test of time as the only film by a major American director to feature an Academy Award-winning actor (in this case, Dustin Hoffman) watching the 2014 Cameron Diaz/Jason Segel vehicle Sex Tape. Whether it is otherwise notable seems an open question.

Near its beginning, the film has a kind of ground-level charm particular to Baumbach’s style. Losing oneself in his oeuvre is easy since much of his later work especially is cheerfully interchangeable. His editor, Jennifer Lame, who’s done his four latest films, has a deft touch and a sense of humor. His imagistic landscapes of New York (and for him it’s nearly always New York) are rendered with an agreeably salt-of-the-earth honesty about location; in Meyerowitz, it’s refreshing to note that a scene set at the Museum of Modern Art is actually filmed there. Baumbach, too, is a primarily imitative filmmaker, and this film, like a good deal of his work, borrows liberally from Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, and Alexander Payne, in equal measure. But the pleasures of his films fade on reflection. The ruminative writer/director has made seven narrative features since the turn of the century, only one (2005’s The Squid and the Whale) truly great, and much like another of his recent projects, While We’re Young (2015), Meyerowitz’s remarkably strong start is eventually undercut by emotional blatancy and a fundamental lack of empathy for its characters.

If Baumbach has a true strength, it is for directing actors, and his great—and in some ways audacious—triumph with Meyerowitz is allowing his bold-face stars to relax into the archetypal spaces where they’re strongest. Hoffman, as Harold, the patriarch of the titular family, spends much of the film locked into a rapid-fire murmur that can’t help but be compared to his turn in Rain Man, twenty-nine years ago. Watching the film, you feel yourself as ready as his brood to snap and exhort him to shut up already, which is exactly what Baumbach wants—Meyerowitz is about the kind of brutally unfair hierarchies that emerge in a fractured family (the aforementioned Wes Anderson covered much of the same ground in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, a film with a much more morbid ending than this one that still manages to be infinitely more pleasant). For Harold, that means favoring his youngest, Matt (Ben Stiller), over his misbegotten oldest, Danny (Adam Sandler), and the all-but-ignored middle child, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). Stiller, used to drifting through Baumbach’s New York stories as a listing sad-sack, here plays the West Coast hotshot; it seems an unwritten rule that he must always play one or the other. Marvel, like her character, fades into the background, and her foremost moments on screen correspond with Baumbach’s worst writing—a pity.

Sandler’s work on the film has been much-discussed, but in truth, there’s nothing new in The Meyerowitz Stories but the gentle reminder that he is a great dramatic actor who’s never gotten the roles he deserves, which, after Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and Funny People (2009), should be a well-known fact. Baumbach lets Sandler, too, stay in his comfort zone—as in those two films, Sandler plays the sweet schmuck with occasionally-flaring anger issues. The first third of Meyerowitz is so strong, so lived-in, so authentic, because it allows Sandler to be its focus; then, perhaps fearing his star might accidentally pull a Jack and Jill, Baumbach retreats from him and jumps from thread to thread. Thus the Salinger-adjacent title.

What follows is a retreat of a different kind. Baumbach’s characters are never easy to like, and he has a knack for casting the kind of actors (Jesse Eisenberg, Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig) who flout the audience’s affections with the disgust of a foodie turning his nose up at a hot dog. The Meyerowitz clan is not as unsympathetic as Eisenberg’s character in Squid and the Whale, or Stiller’s in Greenberg (2010), but the film holds the audience at a purposeful distance that soon begins to feel more frustrating than artful. Another singularity: Baumbach is certainly the only director in the world who can make Emma Thompson, as Harold’s wife, an unlikeable bore.

The ending, worst of all, is pat and largely easy, offering bromides about not becoming one’s parents straight out of the self-help section. Baumbach is not a great filmmaker, or a great writer, but he is a good one, and, clearly, one trusted by some of our greatest working actors. Danny says of Harold in the film, “Maybe I need to believe my dad was a genius because I don’t want his life to be worthless.” Baumbach has so much going for him it’s hard not to need to believe he can do better.