This review was originally published during the Cannes Film Festival.
All happy movie families are alike; every unhappy movie family is … also kind of alike, but they’re a great litmus test for a director’s evolution. In Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), we’re introduced to a kind of perpetually kvelling, far-from-tragic brood whose deep-seated insecurities and regrets slowly emerge over the course of the film. There are shades of The Royal Tenenbaums and Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Still Walking here, as well as Baumbach’s own The Squid and the Whale. But it’s incredible what a difference 12 years makes: Baumbach is an altogether more generous and insightful filmmaker here than he was the last time he told this story.
It also must be emphasized that all bad Adam Sandler movies are alike, and every good Adam Sandler movie (which, for this critic, is not many) will broadside you in its own way. Sandler, who plays Danny, the less-successful son of sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), has not been this well utilized since Punch-Drunk Love. He’s the first member of the family we meet, as he’s trying to park his Subaru Outback in the Upper West Side, his film-student daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) in the passenger seat. Their rapport is easygoing and affectionate, and punctuated with Sandler’s signature red-faced screams at other drivers. The scene cuts in the middle of one of them: a cinematic et cetera, and the only real “LOL, it’s Adam Sandler” wink. The rest of the film creates a more nuanced portrait: Danny is a good-natured but self-defeating would-be musician who, despite neglect, is more concerned with his father’s legacy than anyone else.
Over the course of subsequent “stories” (demarcated with title pages and opening sentences, which doesn’t come off nearly as twee as it sounds), we meet the lot: Hoffman brusquely embodies the embittered, still fiercely competitive Harold, whose career never became what he wanted it to be. Emma Thompson is Maureen, his drunk-hippy fourth wife (a slurrier version of Thompson’s Harry Potter role). Ben Stiller is Matthew, Harold’s son from another marriage, a type-A accountant and Harold’s clear favorite, not that that means much. The film’s second-best performance is Elizabeth Marvel as Jean, Danny’s sister, who is somehow the most well-adjusted of them all despite being the most put-upon.
The plot first concerns the impending sale of the Meyerowitzes’ Manhattan home and much of Harold’s art, and Harold’s bitterness over a friend and rival’s MoMA retrospective. Danny and Jean visit him first, then Matthew — which affords us the opportunity to hear many lines and stories twice if not more. But Harold isn’t the only Meyerowitz who repeats his own jokes and stories; the repetitions are like incantations against change or to ward off a worsening condition, be it emotional or physical. Or as Maureen says while mourning the loss of her wok in the move: “You have an idea of yourself, and you want to hold on to that.”
Eventually a neglected injury lands Harold in the hospital, and the three siblings come to his side, with tensions and neuroses in high gear. Baumbach’s patience in letting us get to know these characters outside a crisis makes their handling of it all the more rich, not to mention funny. Baumbach often gets pegged as a “daddy issues” auteur, but he’s found new and enlightening variations on it here. In their time of trial, the Meyerowitz children become fixated on Pam, Harold’s first nurse who has abandoned them for another unit, and tear around the hospital looking for her, unable to accept the care and attention of anyone else.
Meyerowitz is not afraid to let its characters hug and learn, and the film ends on a note that is almost radically hopeful after all the vitriol and baggage we’ve seen up until then. And yes, this unhappy movie family ends on a kind of elliptical, life-goes-on note that so many unhappy movie families have ended on before. But what a lovely note that is.