NYFF 2017: ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ Offers Hilarious, Poignant Snapshots of Family Dysfunction
Noah Baumbach has a type. For those familiar with the directors’s particular brand of arrested-development dramatic comedy, the trappings of The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) are predictable. There is the director’s typical New York City setting — lovingly adorned with scenes at Lincoln Center, hip Lower East Side eateries, and the Whitney Museum — as well as a fractured titular family comprised of academics and artists. And of course poignant humor that jabs at those two universes, relying on audience familiarity with a certain type of east coast elitism for laughs.
Like The Squid and The Whale, Frances Ha, or Mistress America, Baumbach’s new film seems aimed at Brooklyn’s young gentry, New Yorker subscribers, and audiences who either find New York stories inherently interesting or are just enthralled by self obsessed characters who are arrogant, kooky, or pitiable; and just like those other films, The Meyerowitz Stories manages to transcend all this tragic New York-ness and indulgent self-evaluation. The film thoughtfully investigates a fraught intersection of aging, identity, memory, and familial expectation that isn’t unique to erudite urbanites — it’s universal.
The Meyerowitz Stories themselves are a series of snapshots that focus on the family of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a professor and sculptor of little renown (much to his displeasure). He obsesses over his lingering grievances, which range from trivial (rude restaurant hosts) to existential (his lack of professional recognition), even after he is hospitalized during the film’s affecting middle section. Harold’s children — Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) — patiently humor their father, and when Harold becomes sick, they reckon with the lingering effects of his inadequate parenting as they face his impending mortality.
Much praise will — and should — be heaped upon Sandler’s performance in the film, which is a refreshing departure from the actor’s formulaic recent output. Similar acclaim should find its way to Baumbach’s construction of Danny, a character seemingly tailored to Sandler’s skill set. Adam Sandler, the raging man-child we all know well, is very present in The Meyerowitz Stories, but Danny, a failed artist and a second class citizen in his own family (Danny lives in the shadow of Matthew, Harold’s golden child), adds a layer of pathos to Sandler’s deafening outbursts. Baumbach also freshens Sandler’s typical routine with hard cuts that truncate the actor’s outbursts. It’s a magic trick that milks laughs from Sandler’s well-worn shtick, and withholds whatever catharsis the raging could provide Danny.
Catharsis is a main focus of The Meyerowitz Stories. The anthology outlines both the cause (Harold) and the effect of the Meyerowitz siblings’ emotional repression. Matthew, a successful financial planner, feels his professional success is dismissed by his Harold because he is not an artist, even though Harold has always doted on him; Danny (a failed musician) and his sister Jean (a quiet office drone) feel overlooked by Harold because, quite simply, they aren’t Matthew. When Harold is hospitalized, the three compare emotional scars, confess their perceptions of one another, and grapple with the lasting legacy of Harold — a titan in his own mind who inflicted his shortcomings on his children with an inflexible rubric of artistic expectation.
The film’s hospital setting echoes The Big Sick, another of the year’s films that treats hospital rooms as a space of confession and vulnerability. In The Meyerowitz Stories, Danny, Jean, and Matthew forge a tenuous alliance, scribbling notes in doctor’s meetings and bonding with the various nurses that float in and out of Harold’s room. These scenes are poignantly hilarious, especially for viewers who have found themselves utterly confounded by medical prognoses, or worn thin by an extended period of hospital visitation.
The humor of the logistical obstacles and idiosyncrasies of hospital life adds a bonus to the interesting way Harold’s illness affords each Meyerowitz child an opportunity to interact with the versions of their father that exist in their siblings minds. Matthew, after a lifetime of feeling suffocated by his father’s attention, learns that Danny envied his status as Harold’s favorite, and was overshadowed by Matthew’s exaggerated standing. Danny learns that the attention he craved for so long effectively crippled his half-brother, while the always-overlooked Jean nearly steals the movie from her brothers with a revelatory monologue about a traumatic childhood event that was entirely dismissed by a typically inattentive Harold.
The structure of the film itself works to erase the distance between the Meyerowitz kids, mirroring the real-life way that childhood memories — often unreliable — shape our identities. The distinct chapters in The Meyerowitz Stories reveal both the personal and intersecting histories of the Meyerowitz clan, even while focusing squarely on one child for extended periods. Matthew is absent for the film’s first chapter, although the way he is referenced by Danny, Jean, and Harold signals that he is never really absent, always looming as Harold’s golden child. Harold is present in every scene of the film, even during long stretches when he literally isn’t. Conversations between his children are dotted with references to their father, and his specter manifests in each child’s neuroses.
Danny, Jean, and Matthew are adults, unable to distance themselves from the legacy of their father, and although Harold is sidelined for much of the film, his children grapple with his memory in his absence. Together after substantial time apart, and away from Harold’s smothering presence, the Meyerowitz children deprogram themselves, finally identifying and questioning their childhood indoctrinations. They witness each others’ professional and emotional successes and failures, intuiting Harold’s affect in each instance. They question their father’s definition of success, they question his grievances, and they question his failures. For a brief moment late in the film, they wonder if the sculptor, for all his bluster, was even talented to begin with. We are left wondering how exactly that should alter their own self-worth.
Harold is mostly an incorrigible asshole, obsessed with his own status and reputation in the art world. His children offer him opportunities to relate, with inquiries into his marital happiness and offers to help around the house that he breezes past and talks over, maintaining focus only on a string of perceived unfairness. He is not abusive; he’s absent, and still somehow made sympathetic by Hoffman. The actor portrays Harold with a tinge of exasperated sadness that suggests his brusque persona exists to obscure self-doubt about his talent, and that his failings as a parent stemming from self-obsession are truly a symptom of crippling professional insecurity.
You can never fully disdain Harold watching The Meyerowitz Stories; the film is simply too funny and too recognizably human to frame the distant Harold as a complete villain. His rudeness and self-absorption provide moments of cringe-worthy humor more often than heartbreaking sadness, although both are present throughout much of the film. After his hospitalization, it is natural to share his children’s emotional investment in his recovery. They resent him for infecting them with his own victim complex and imposing his own creative goals on them at a young age, but throughout the film their emotional appraisals are bolstered by the hope that they will eventually reconcile Harold’s parental failures with their own adult shortcomings.
As with most Baumbach films, the narrative drifts, although The Meyerowitz Stories unfolds with a hectic energy that is almost unceasing until the end. Still, there is a sense at the “end” that we’ve witnessed a brief snapshot of a family’s history instead of a hermetic journey from point A to point B. We can’t know if the Meyerowitz children will ever escape their father’s influence, or the legacy of his memory after he’s gone — these are just a selection of the Meyerowitz Stories, after all. But Baumbach leaves the characters in a different place than where we find them, closer to understanding their distinct identities as more than miscarriages of their father’s expectations.
Very few people might live the specific lives that Baumbach is drawn to exploring, but the feeling of assessing your individual formation and struggling to understand one’s own impulses separately from their family’s distinct value structure is relatable, if not universal. The Meyerowitz Stories understands that, and presents an ambitious portrait of adults navigating their future in the light of a fading star, confronting the fact that the guidance was not that great to begin with.