Cannes 2017: Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories

On Film / The Daily — May 22, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) isn’t the wittiest or most exciting movie that Noah Baumbach has ever made, but it might just be the most humane,” writes David Ehrlich at IndieWire. “While all of his films have a cutting sense of humor, this is the first that would rather tend to its wounds than watch them bleed.”

Adam Sandler is Danny, “the eldest of three middle-aged siblings, reuniting in NYC for an exhibition by their largely unsung sculptor father (Dustin Hoffman, under a mountain of snow-white facial hair),” as A. A. Dowd explains at the A.V. Club. “Sandler, who’s spent an entire lifetime positioning himself on the left side of a slobs-vs.-snobs conflict, finds new notes of underachiever pathos in the character, a soon-to-be-divorcee and a father of a college-bound daughter. And he’s well-matched by Ben Stiller, as his more ostensibly successful businessman brother, Matthew, and Elizabeth Marvel, as their wallflower sister, Jean. Baumbach, who’s honed his comic dialogue to a furious bebop point in recent films like Frances Ha and While We’re Young, hands these actors pages of prickly combative dialogue.”

“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,” finds Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “But it’s incredible what a difference twelve years makes: Baumbach is an altogether more generous and insightful filmmaker here than he was the last time he told this story.”

“The film’s narrative arc, insofar as it has one, is about Danny, Jean and Matthew reconciling themselves with Harold’s imperfect fathering and impending death, thanks to a head injury he sustains while walking his poodle,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “Both Harold’s accident and admission to hospital happen off-screen, and before this storyline even emerges, the film spends almost an hour building up its characters, carefully rigging the tensions between them at various father-son dinners and outings in readiness for the choppy waters of its second half.”

For Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage, Meyerowitz has “the welcome casual feel of a mid-career Woody Allen New York-set picture—all starry ensemble casting, artistic discourse, tastily decorated apartments, and failed romance—captured in the pastel-deifying camerawork of Robbie Ryan (American Honey, Slow West).”

“The densely talky film feels like a condensed version of a TV show,” finds Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “and it won’t lose much, cinematographically speaking, in its translation to the small screen on Netflix, especially when so much of its staging is unremarkable: two-hander, often overlapping dialogue scenes that run their course from beginning to end in a single location. In fact, the amiable and undemanding Meyerowitz evokes so many other media—television, short story, theater—that it’s a little unclear as to quite why it’s a film.”

“Dustin Hoffman’s performance is very persuasive as an implacable old man with babyish tendencies and needs, obsessed with the petty trappings of status,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “He reminded me of someone in the White House. Elizabeth Marvel is wonderfully dry and underplayed and actually upstages her two co-stars in a tricky, and apparently subordinate role. . . . But it is Ben Stiller who really steals it.”

“Sandler’s moving, unmannered work, the revelation of the film, rewarded Baumbach’s faith,” notes Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. “‘It was a very felt performance, he was very inside it, and it was exciting to be there with him and watch him do it,’ he says. ‘He had access to real humor, but always within the reality of the character.’”

“Structuring the piece as a self-proclaimed series of ‘stories’ rather than as a solidly built two or three-act drama serves to gradually flatten the action out instead of providing it with a more muscular shape, which slowly takes a toll in the late-going,” finds the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “But Baumbach has written juicy roles and lots of cranky dialogue, just what actors love to sink their teeth into, which easily explains why he attracted such a crack cast.”

“Just about everyone we meet in the film is suffering through a private humiliation, whether it be a divorce or unfulfilled dreams,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson. “Thanks to Baumbach’s lively screenplay, the characters are able to articulate their grievances in entertaining, revealing ways—even if it’s not at the most opportune time.”

“Although technically an acquisition (as opposed to a project they greenlit themselves), as the best Netflix Original film to date, perhaps this is a sign that the company is finally taking a more discerning interest in the content of their ‘content,’” suggests Variety’s Peter Debruge.

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 4/5), Dave Calhoun (Time Out, 4/5), and Barbara Scharres (RogerEbert.com). And in Spanish, Diego Lerer.

Updates, 5/23: “Sandler is terrific here, even if you’re not sure you can stomach another man-child shuffling around in rumpled shorts,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “The movie overall is Baumbach in psychoanalysts’ mode, weighing the multitudinous horrors—and occasional meager joys—of parent-child relationships. His characters talk a lot, both to and around each other, and it can wear you down fast: Though it’s all supposed to be lacerating and honest, there’s also something preciously self-conscious about the picture.”

“Although this is a male-weighted movie, there are no dud characters, and a democracy of humor is the currency,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman for Little White Lies. “The relentless pace of the dialogue is at times exhausting, and the tone never really varies, yet this is forgiven when, hours after viewing, you find yourself grinning into the ether, remembering standout hoots from a cornucopia of Meyerowitz tales.”

Updates, 5/24: “None of this—the buried resentments, the hesitant stabs at reconciliation—is unfamiliar, but it’s funny and affecting all the same,” writes Justin Chang for the Los Angeles Times. “Individually and together, the members of this family forge their own sweet, resilient music—quite literally when it comes to Randy Newman’s lovely score. When Danny and Eliza perform one song as a duet, with Sandler gently tickling the ivories, The Meyerowitz Stories becomes awfully hard to resist—and tempting to reimagine as a full-blown musical.”

“Baumbach has given Stiller his best acting showcase in years simply by letting him spike his often overlooked emotional range with nut-rage brio,” writes Simon Abrams at the House Next Door. “Marvel also does fine work with Baumbach's deceptively challenging dialogue; she often has to talk over her co-stars to be heard, and that's no small feat given that she's competing with champion scenery-chewers like Sandler and Hoffman. . . . Sandler doesn't have much range, but he uses his usual man-child tics—especially his coy pout, and his impotent scream—to great effect here.”

Update, 5/25: “When a major artist finally makes it into the Cannes competition slate, despite consistently producing excellent work, the question becomes: what changed?” Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook: “Is it simply belated recognition? Or is the artist somehow pushing themselves in unprecedented ways, creating work deserving of a larger spotlight?” The Meyerowitz Stories actually “finds the Manhattan-based director in perfectly comfortable territory, far closer in spirit to his older work than his recent, more adventurous projects with Greta Gerwig.” Still, “there's an underlying melancholy imbued in every frame. It’s a ‘small’ film—perhaps even a ‘minor work,’ to borrow one character’s offhand assessment—but worth something all the same.”

Updates, 5/26: “It doesn’t quite have the drive and stylistic panache of other recent Baumbach efforts,” writes the Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri, “but it makes up for it with sincerity. Sandler’s core as a performer has always been self-loathing; in his best comedies, he weaponizes it with humiliating ruthlessness. Here, however, he internalizes it.”

Dispatching to Sight & Sound, Michael Leader notes that “scenes are stolen throughout by the female supporting characters. Emma Thompson is fantastic as Harold’s ‘newly sober’ third wife Maureen, New York’s answer to Hogwarts’ hippy-dippy Professor Trelawney. . . . However, it is Elizabeth Marvel as Jean, the middle sibling, who looks like a Roz Chast drawing from the New Yorker brought to life and drawls like MTV’s Daria crossed with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, that holds the key to the film. While her brothers bitch and bicker, she has her own unspoken traumas to bear. These Meyerowitz stories are family narratives—visible, subtle, or simply forgotten in the cacophony of grievances.”

Update, 5/27: At 4:3, Jessica Ellicott calls Meyerowitz “a deft-handed ensemble comedy that approaches the likes of Albert Brooks and Elaine May in its blend of the hilarious and heartbreaking.”

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