Director: Noah Baumbach
Stars: Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman
Noah Baumbach’s oeuvre is white middle class New Yorker comedy with an ear for the screwball and occasional – almost happenstance – wisdom. Of late it has benefited greatly from his proximity to Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha is this writer’s go-to feel good-movie on a bad day, while Mistress America remains oddly invisible in the UK and is a real grower). She ain’t here this time though and, more worryingly, Adam Sandler is, alongside Ben Stiller, who didn’t quite convince in Baumbach’s wonky While We’re Young. What’s more, The Meyerowitz Stories debuts on Netflix. This one could really go either way.
But trepidation is a welcome thing. Baumbach’s predictability breeds complacency, and while this is still lands squarely in the centre of ‘that thing he does’, risky elements at least give expectations a little shake.
Sandler has come up good before. His turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love was awards-worthy. But 2002 was a long time ago, and the man has become synonymous with bad product. As vehicles like 2015’s sorry The Cobbler were happy to show, he’s also gotten older but not necessarily wiser. Baumbach places him carefully into his new dramedy as Danny, the skipped-over son of sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman). Sandler is allowed to play in his anger-management sandbox, but he’s tempered. He should work in indies more. It’s his best work in fifteen years. Stiller is the more fortunate brother Matthew.
Stiller, a contemporary of Sandler’s, has managed to maintain a more respected comedy brand despite a number of duds (*cough* Zoolander 2 *cough*), so there’s a meta edge to the way the two of them are set against one another here. The film is a peppering of anecdotal observations on the Meyerowitz family, reunited to celebrate their patriarch. The female side of the family is catered for just as well in terms of casting, but this is predominantly a tale of father and sons. Emma Thompson plays sozzled new-age step-mother Maureen with a relaxed slinkiness, Grave Van Patten charms well enough as Danny’s daughter Eliza, while Elizabeth Marvel quietly steals the precious scenes she’s in with her dry performance as Jean.
Hoffman acts his age, imbuing Harold’s artisan narcissism with delicate pride and a mild doddering nature. Harold considers himself a success, yet the world treats him with a level of indifference he can’t quite fathom. Baumbach mines cringe-comedy when Harold takes Danny to an exhibition of one of his contemporaries and they fail to gain recognition without assistance; the pair of them in tuxes at an event with a less formal dress code.
Stiller conjures memories (perhaps deliberately) of his appearance in The Royal Tenenbaums. His Matthew is like having the opportunity to check in with that movie’s Chaz; older more pragmatic. It’s one of his finer performances because it’s toned down. He even plays the straight guy to Hoffman in a superbly comic lunch scene. The sparring between them delivers some of the film’s most giving pleasures.
As intimated, this is like a scrapbook of moments rather than something powered by plot. Accordingly, those moments had better be of a quality. Fortunately, they all are. Danny and his daughter playing a song together at the family piano could very easily have dipped into hokiness, yet Sandler and Van Patten retrieve it and turn it into something honest and an early highlight. Danny walks with a limp he’s been ignoring and Harold suffers headaches, between them manifesting the tensions between family members. However, what sticks with Meyerowitz is not the ways in which these characters clash, but rather how close they are. For all their eccentricities, this is a family that shares, that talks to one another. Danny and his daughter, especially, are as much friends as father and daughter.
Baumbach enjoys cutting as scenes reach their crescendo, offering us a comedic ‘therefore’ by introducing us to the result. It becomes a motif of the film, familiar – even predictable – but not overplayed. It’s another playful element, as is the judicious placing of other actors from Baumbach’s growing stable. If you’re a fan of his work there’s fun to be had spotting these names walking in and out of the movie.
Spending time with the Meyerowitzes is a leisurely paced experience, but a gratifying one. Baumbach’s insistence on underscoring things with rinky-dink piano playing has the capacity to irk, but Meyerowitz lives and breathes on the performances. One senses that the actors are having an absolute ball not only with the material, but with the opportunity to work off of one another. This ease and mannered exuberance creates the family, creates the reality of the picture. Cinema’s loss is Netflix’s gain in this instance (it’s easily one of their best ‘originals’). Baumbach’s movies are most often praised for their wit and wordiness, but they do look good on a big screen. Between this and the physical disappearance of Mistress America, our ability to experience them is becoming less and less tangible. Significance has been removed. It has become casual. But the value is still there and not being serviced. Fortunately, there’s enough quality here to make up for what’s lost.