Overview: The emotionally stunted children of an old sculptor are forced to reconcile following the father’s unexpected hospitalization. Netflix; 2017; Not Yet Rated; 110 minutes.
A Return to an Old Form: Over the past few years, Brooklyn auteur Noah Baumbach has established himself as one of the cinema’s preeminent chroniclers of twenty-something millennials, specifically with his enthusiastically received Greta Gerwig diptych Francis Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015). But with his new film The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach returns to his roots as examiner of dysfunctional families, specifically ones orbiting semi-successful artists living in New York City. One of Baumbach’s earliest triumphs, 2005’s semi-autobiographical The Squid and the Whale, explored the psychological devastation left upon two adolescent sons by the tumultuous divorce of their writer parents. Here in Meyerowitz we get a possible glimpse at the men these two boys may have become several decades later. At the center of the film is Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a grouchy old curmudgeon who squanders his golden years stewing in his own resentment over his failed career as a modern sculptor. In-between exasperated dinners with his aloof, alcoholic fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) and trips to MOMA retrospectives of his former contemporaries, he emotionally terrorizes his two sons Danny (Adam Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller).
Born to different mothers, Danny and Matthew are a study in opposites. We never get a real idea of what Danny does for a living, but we get the sense that his full-time occupation has been being a father for his precocious daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), a freshman film student at Bard College who specializes in making “art films” that feel like softcore porn parodies of Kenneth Anger by way of Maya Deren. Sporting a grotesques limp and a short temper, we find that Danny has somehow managed to overcome Harold’s tyrannical parenting to become the loving, supportive father he always needed. Matthew, on the other hand, moved to the other side of the country to Los Angeles to become a financial manager for celebrities (Adam Driver’s brief cameo as one of his ditzy clients garners one of the film’s only emotionally uncomplicated laughs). He has no family in California, and perhaps even fewer real friends. But his high-stress profession allows him the simple privilege of never having the free time to confront his childhood traumas. But when both sons—and his daughter Jean, played by a scene-stealing Elizabeth Marvel who, in one of the film’s only glaring failures, is only given a single scene in which to take center stage—are summoned back home after Harold’s unexpected hospitalization for a brain injury, they discover that despite their individual successes their father still holds them in contempt for not becoming great artists. And when Harold suddenly develops a life-threatening case of sepsis, his children are backed into a corner. This might be the only chance they have to make up with each other and Harold before his death. And so they try. And in typical Baumbach form, it doesn’t go well.
Welcome Home, Sandler: One can’t talk about The Meyerowitz Stories without also mentioning the elephant in the room: Adam Sandler. The film was touted as his long-awaited return to serious drama, a move many have breathlessly awaited for years. In the early 2000s, Sandler abandoned the puerile man-child persona he’d developed in his stand-up, appearances on Saturday Night Live, and a string of critically panned but financially successful ’90s comedies for a number of stunning dramatic roles that suggested he might be one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets. The most beloved of these is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), a devastating romantic dramedy that saw Sandler as a lonely small business owner prone to fits of explosive rage. But Sandler shattered the film world’s hopes by resuming his comedic exploits in the 2010s with a series of films that made his earlier comedies look like Marx Brothers masterpieces in comparison, including Sean Anders’ That’s My Boy (2012), a film which, in this humble writer’s opinion, ranks among the most despicable cinematic abominations in history. And with his recent multi-film contract with Netflix pumping out duds like Frank Coraci’s The Ridiculous 6 (2015), many had given up on Sandler altogether.
But his turn as Danny Meyerowitz is a revelation. If films like Punch-Drunk Love and Mike Bender’s criminally under-appreciated Reign Over Me (2007) channeled his emotional demons into tragic, near-mythic embodiments of isolation and loss, The Meyerowitz Stories asks what would happen if one of Sandler’s earlier man-children existed in real life. The answer is better than you’d expect. He’s still prone to shouting fits, sudden tantrums, and the occasional fist-fight. He still regards the world with a kind of detached wonder, appearing genuinely impressed with his daughter’s preposterous short films. And he still exudes a child-like immaturity—see his refusal to let a doctor take a look at his limping leg despite everyone telling him he should. But here is a man who’s figured out how to exist in a world he doesn’t perfectly fit into. And more than that, he’s managed to raise a wonderful daughter in the process. One can’t help but wonder if his maladjustment is inherent or merely the product of his awful childhood.
Overall: The Meyerowitz Stories is no masterpiece. Its deliberately episodic structure falls apart in the last fifteen minutes when Baumbach suddenly insists that every single plot thread and emotional relationship needs its own resolution complete with dramatic fade to black, calling up unfortunate memories of the endless string of endings in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King (2003). Sandler, Stiller, and Hoffman are all given generous room to shine and deliver magnetic performances. But the female characters end up getting shoved to the side despite them clearly being just as interesting as any of the men. (Why does Maureen feel compelled to drink so much? What inspired Eliza’s student pornos? And why oh why is Jean treated like a supporting character when she so clearly isn’t?) But for a film that fumbles its last act like a greased football, it still remains a funny, penetrating look into familial dysfunction.
Featured Image: Netflix