NYFF 2017: Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories

On Film / The Daily — Oct 1, 2017

“Noah Baumbach has always been a writer-director of no formal distinction, but he's possessed with a keen eye and ear for the intricacies of pettiness, humiliation, and schadenfreude,” begins Steve Macfarlane at Slant. “His new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected), concerning a family of neurotic middle-aged New Yorkers attempting to come to grips with the imminent demise of their sculptor father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), duly feels like a retread of past works (and not just Baumbach’s), if better structured and finer-grained than most. It appreciates life’s vastness and maddening repetition; its screenplay is emotionally sprawling but peripatetic in the telling. Baumbach makes a lived-in milieu feel instantly familiar as Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) and his teenage daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), pause in the middle of their search for a parking spot to enjoy Fine Young Cannibals’s ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ on the radio, before the inevitable New York City honking and screaming resumes.”

“The bracing if oppressively acrid wit of mid-career works like Greenberg has merged with the emotional generosity of more recent (and comparatively trifling) comedies like Frances Ha to synthesize his sharpest and tenderest opus since his acknowledged masterpiece, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale,” writes Steven Mears for Film Comment. “The screenplay never figures out what to do with the dipso-boho stepmom (Emma Thompson), and a quirky sibling slap-fight and acts of cathartic vandalism feel borrowed from Wes Anderson’s bottom drawer, but in lovely moments like a father-daughter piano duet, Baumbach proves he’s capable of drawing tears as well as blood.”

We haven’t yet mentioned Ben Stiller. Mark Olsen profiles him for the Los Angeles Times: “Baumbach wrote the part of the driven, successful business manager in The Meyerowitz Stories with Stiller very much in mind, and he did the same for Adam Sandler in the part of his underachieving sad-sack brother. . . . Baumbach said the first few people he showed the script to, including Stiller, thought the roles of the brothers were intended for the opposite actor. ‘I felt like it was an opportunity for Ben to play something closer to who he really is,’ Baumbach said. ‘And when Ben clicked into that, I think it was very gutsy of him to reveal that on-screen.’”

Baumbach “moves beyond dramatization of familial passive-aggression and into maturity and analysis, telling a story about getting older, coming to terms with who these people are, and figuring out how to be your own person anyway,” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey. “It’s an uproariously funny movie, and a genuinely tender and moving one as well.”

“The rumors are true,” Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov assures us: “Adam Sandler (and everyone else) is excellent in this father-sons drama of potential reconciliation.”

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) premiered in competition in Cannes and screens this evening and tomorrow night (October 2) as part of the Main Slate of this year’s New York Film Festival. Baumbach will be on hand for a Q&A this evening, and members of the cast join him tomorrow.

Update, 10/2: Vadim Rizov has more to say about The Meyerowitz Stories at Reverse Shot. “The title is Baumbach’s most Jewish since Greenberg, and connecting pioneer star Hoffman to unlikely beneficiary protégés Sandler/Stiller underlines the emphasis. The anxieties of attempting to ameliorate WASPs, which fueled Meet the Parents (and which have never troubled Sandler), are off the table here—it’s a strictly family affair. Meyerowitz is a companion piece to The Squid and the Whale, another story about two siblings perpetually reeling in the wake of their dad’s ever-ruinous presence, which likewise climaxes with a symbolic trip to the museum—the Whitney, in this case, with Baumbach’s cinema studies scholar brother Nico cameoing as a docent. Squid’s brothers were adolescents and teenagers, these are middle-aged men; but the damage continually being done is no less meaningful for being removed from the moment of greatest formative impact.”

Update, 10/3: “As Harold's wife, Emma Thompson only needs a wide shot to steal a scene,” writes Chloe Lizotte at Screen Slate. “A force of nature, she makes it impossible to overlook how much more thinly drawn Meyerowitz’s female characters are than their male counterparts. Although they’re given space to express bottled-up remorse, their monologues often function as compressed exposition, allowing for a quick pivot back to repressed masculine hangups. Tellingly, Marvel's more introverted sibling doesn't get a full chapter heading like her two brothers; she gets a parenthetical. It's disappointing that any members of the ensemble get lost in a film so overwhelmingly eloquent about family dynamics, but that may reinforce Baumbach's point—above all, the stories we tell reflect our own interests.”

Update, 10/7: On the Playback podcast, Kristopher Tapley talks with Hoffman for Variety (39’19”).

Updates, 10/11: “Adam Sandler’s core as a performer has always been his self-loathing,” argues Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “In his best comedies, he weaponizes it with humiliating ruthlessness. (In his worst ones, it wafts pathetically off him like the day-after stink of a drunkard.) Now, he’s given the performance of his life in Noah Baumbach’s free-spirited and likable The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and it feels like something momentous and new for the actor. Whereas Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love used Sandler’s existing persona brilliantly to create an extreme and beautifully self-aware version of an Adam Sandler Movie, Baumbach successfully brings Sandler into the real world without ever quite letting him lose his Adam Sandler–ness.”

“Ms. Thompson is hilarious,” adds Glenn Kenny in the New York Times, “Ms. Marvel applies her customary note-perfect execution of character, and Ms. Van Patten is what they call a find. And while Mr. Stiller’s Matthew is both reliably and appealingly neurotic, it is Mr. Sandler who excels, both riotously and poignantly.”

More from the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd: “By now, it’s not surprising to see Stiller play up the serio end of seriocomic for Baumbach, who coaxed a richly dramatic performance out of him in Greenberg. But as Matthew, the more ostensibly put-together of the Meyerowitz boys, he has a scene of such tender vulnerability that it makes you wonder if you’ve ever really seen the terrific actor he keeps hidden behind the various Zoolanders on his résumé. Sandler, meanwhile, hits new notes of underachiever pathos. . . . Baumbach doesn’t so much subvert the actor’s common tricks—temper tantrums, silly ditties, and a general hangdog quality are all accounted for—as chisel an affecting character out of them. He has not been cast against type.”

And from Sean Burns, writing for WBUR: “Every seven years or so, this incredibly gifted and extraordinarily lazy performer reminds us of his immense talent, here slouching his way through the picture in cargo shorts, forcing smiles under a cloud of defeat. When the zingers land he makes you feel where they hit.”

In Brooklyn Magazine, Jesse Hassenger reminds us that Wes Anderson produced Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale and that they co-wrote Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Here, the “connection is especially strong.” Meyerowitz “vaguely resembles The Royal Tenenbaums [2001]. Both films operate within a non-specific literary framing device: Tenenbaums begins with a book checked out of a library, then narrated by Alec Baldwin, while Stories is, indeed, assembled like a short compendium of short stories, underlined by the titular parenthetical. To some degree, the Meyerowitz clan inverts the familial dynamic of the Tenenbaums, who are a group of gifted children who never quite fulfilled their promise, poorly parented by ‘kind of a son of a bitch.’ . . . But for those fearful of another Margot at the Wedding [2007]—underappreciated for its bracing darkness—Meyerowitz may count as a relief. Neglect and parental missteps alternate with real warmth.”

“The most poignant moments in Baumbach’s film involve one character having their sentimentality disillusioned by someone who doesn’t share their attachment,” finds Jason Ooi at In Review Online. “This makes the film bittersweet, but always with sense of balance: the hurt doesn’t go away, but the bonds of family outlast a resentment for mistakes made in the past.”

“This is Fresh Air.Terry Gross interviews Baumbach (25’51”).

Updates, 10/12: “One of the most painful yet undeniable truths captured by The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey, “is the specific experience of being an also-ran, an almost-famous, how that breeds a particular kind of personal and professional resentment, resulting in both a general unpleasantness and an overall dislike for pretty much everything that anyone else creates. We met a father like that in Baumbach’s quietly masterful The Squid and the Whale . . . But if Baumbach is returning to that film’s preoccupations, he’s also approaching them from a more mature perspective, suggesting a way to get past the kind of paralyzing anger our bad parents can create. The new film about getting older, about coming to terms with who these people are, and figuring out how to be your own person anyway.”

“If Baumbach is on repeat,” writes Andrew Lapin for NPR, “it could be because, as a niche art figure himself, he senses how ripe these character types remain for puncturing. And though the latest effort isn't as tightly crafted as most of his earlier work, it's still prickly and dangerous enough to count for something more than the ‘oh, he's made another one’ shrugs Woody Allen tends to get.”

Updates, 10/14: “Harold is one hell of a role, and Hoffman, as bearded as a prophet, does not hesitate to grab it,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “His bilious speeches are issued like jeremiads; he doesn’t deliver the dialogue so much as bite it off in chunks. And there’s his distinctive locomotion. Think of the pavements that he pounded, gasping more in panic than for breath, in The Graduate, Marathon Man, and Kramer vs. Kramer, then check out Harold’s idea of a run: an indignant shuffle, going nowhere fast, his feet hardly leaving the ground. . . . Baumbach has gathered quite a cast, and there’s no weak link.”

“Unlike his prior work, Baumbach is surprisingly humane here,” writes Odie Henderson at RogerEbert.com. “He beats up on his characters, but he also gives them a salve to help heal the wounds. His charity extends to minor characters like Harold’s more successful rival (Judd Hirsch in an endearing cameo) and Harold’s first wife, (Candice Bergen, who gets a great monologue). Baumbach has also finally written a role for Stiller that doesn’t inspire outright hatred. But The Meyerowitz Stories shockingly belongs to Sandler, who is absolutely fantastic.”

Interviews with Baumbach: David Ehrlich (IndieWire) and Elena Lazic (Little White Lies). And Eliza Berman talks with Dustin Hoffman for Time.

Updates, 10/16: “Imagine digging around in the garden shed for the first time in years and finding a Picasso propped up against the wallpaper steamer. Watching Adam Sandler in The Meyerowitz Stories is a little like that.” The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin suggests that Sandler “has been bad in so many awful films that when he’s terrific in a great one, it feels like both a revelation and a windfall: you can’t quite wrap your head around the fact all that talent has just been lying there all along, gathering cobwebs and dust.”

Writing for the Observer, Wendy Ide argues that Baumbach “specializes in stinging, astringent comedy: the kind that seeps into the failures of a character like lemon juice into a cut. He has an ear for the cross-purposes and competing agendas of family conversations—at times, it’s like watching a ping-pong game in which everyone is hitting balls but nobody is returning them. And, in Harold, he captures the self-serving entitlement of the artist’s character brilliantly. What I am not sure he realises, however, is that for all the explosive dysfunction of the two sons, it is actually the daughter who is the most interesting character. With her dry, laconic delivery—as flat as her defeated-looking haircut—Jean claims both the film’s funniest lines and its most poignant. Elizabeth Marvel, who’ll be familiar to many as the U.S. president in Homeland, lives up to her name.”

Updates, 10/22: “Part of what makes The Meyerowitz Stories so emotionally insinuating is its sly specificity,” writes Michael Sicinski.

“Baumbach has developed a deft compositional sense, his rich texts—such as those by Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha and Mistress America—virtually sung by his actors (including Gerwig herself) in a bluff, jostling, somewhat pugnacious cinematic music,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “In The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach composes an even more extreme setting of his own text; it’s a movie of grafts and accretions and impingements, organized around a central artistic metaphor that reflects back on his own artistic practice.”

For Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader, “the most understated performance is Marvel's portrayal of Jean, a solitary woman who internalizes her frustrations to the point of seeming invisible. Baumbach still gives Marvel an opportunity to shine—his sympathy for actors is one of the film's greatest accomplishments—with a third-act monologue about having suffered the sexually predatory behavior of one of her father's colleagues when she was an adolescent. This monologue darkens the movie considerably, revealing a legacy of pain that hadn't been addressed until here. Meyerowitz never recovers its brisk pace after this, with Jean's memory of abuse weighing down the remainder of the picture.”

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