This weekend my parents are coming to Stockholm to see me, my brother, sister and nephews. I’m glad they’re coming because we are all close, but at the same time there can be tensions when parents and their adult sons and daughters have to live together closely for a short time. It doesn’t matter how old you get, the roles you’ve always played in a family remain the same, and so do the issues you might have with one another.
Watching Noah Baumbach’s new film, the best he’s made so far, made me think of my own family and the bonds we share. I’m certainly blessed in comparison with the Meyerowitzes… then again, the love and intimacy that eventually grace the film is quite moving.
The Meyerowitz children, Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), are adult now but their relationship with their father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) is still a struggle. Harold used to be a lauded sculptor but is no longer an active or even particularly well remembered figure in the Manhattan art scene. Danny, a musician who’s never accomplished much, has been more successful with his teenage daughter (Grace Van Patten), even though he hates the idea of her growing up. Matthew has been doing very well for himself in Los Angeles, but is not much of a role model as a father. Jean usually ends up between her brothers, but when Harold finds himself in a hospital the siblings have to get together and deal with an uncertain future.
Reminiscent of The Squid and the Whale
Released in theaters and on Netflix, the film reminded critics and audiences of Baumbach’s earlier The Squid and the Whale (2005) and he knew that there would be comparisons. After all, both movies take place in the same intellectual middle-class Manhattan environs (Squid and the Whale has the Museum of Natural History, this one has MoMa) and depict a troubled relationship between siblings and their father, a bearded cultural giant who’s now in decline. The tone is also the same, with frank dialogue and a sense of humor laced with earnestness.
It’s impossible not to love the cast. Hoffman is fun to watch as the egotistic patriarch who can’t stand to see the fellow artists from his heyday remain relevant when he’s almost forgotten; Thompson is hilarious as his girlfriend, an alcoholic yet lovable hippie who is chronically unable to cook a decent meal. The real treat here though is watching Sandler, Stiller and Marvel as the siblings. The latter is a veteran of theater and television who’s very engaging as Jean, the seemingly mousy sister who’s devoted to her family and too rarely noticed by her brothers. As for Sandler and Stiller, they have too often been seen in subpar comedies, which has led many of us to expect very little from them. On few occasions, they have surprised us. In this case, Sandler finally finds a proper vehicle for the rage that has become typical of so many of his characters. His ambition to fuse that rage with likability, seen in many of his bad comedies, is finally fulfilled.
Stiller is also terrific, and it is particularly joyful to see both stars interact with Hoffman; they look like they’re digging deep inside of themselves to find that little extra something that might elevate a scene they’re sharing with a titan like that.
The dynamics of the Meyerowitz family are nicely captured by Baumbach in his two roles as writer and director. Randy Newman’s music score is also a pleasure. Watching these selected stories from the life of a family is like therapy, for Baumbach (who was initially inspired by a stay in the hospital) and us in the audience alike.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and selected) 2017-U.S. 112 min. Color. Produced by Noah Baumbach, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Lila Yacoub. Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Music: Randy Newman. Cast: Adam Sandler (Danny Meyerowitz), Ben Stiller (Matthew Meyerowitz), Dustin Hoffman (Harold Meyerowitz), Elizabeth Marvel (Jean Meyerowitz), Emma Thompson, Grace Van Patten… Candice Bergen, Rebecca Miller, Judd Hirsch, Adam Driver, Sigourney Weaver.
Last word: “I wanted to write about a hospital. I felt, in a movie, I hadn’t quite seen what it’s really like to be in a hospital when you’re with someone who’s sick, and having the personal and institutional kind of colliding. But I didn’t know how much of the movie that was going to be. Getting the short story structure helped me think, ‘OK, that could be here. And I could have the two brothers not even be in the same movie until the third section.’ That was helpful, too, because it spoke to the kind of family dynamic, the compartmentalisation that Harold utilised. He doesn’t involve Danny and Matthew; he sees them separately.” (Baumbach, Dazed)