Declan Toohey, Contributor.
Adam Sandler became a Hollywood bigshot just before I was born, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Had I been an adult around the time Billy Madison (1995) or Happy Gilmore (1996) came out, there’s a good chance I would have dismissed them as mindless entertainment. God knows enough critics did at the time, and continue to do so with Sandler’s movies to this day.
Now, I won’t say that Sandler deserves Academy Awards for his early performances, but nevertheless his nineties movies were a source of great joy for me during my childhood, as I’m sure they were for many other people my age. What’s more, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002), he proved he could be a serious actor, and now he gives his best performance yet in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories playing Danny Meyerowitz, a terrible artist but terrific father.
Like almost all of Baumbach’s movies, The Meyerowitz Stories takes as its subject a dysfunctional family who are intelligent, funny and, above all, unhappy. Since his debut feature Kicking and Screaming (1995), a film about recent college graduates who aren’t yet ready to face the real world (sound familiar?), Baumbach has always come across as a combination of Woody Allen and Richard Linklater: his characters are part neurotic, part whimsical, always loquacious, and predominately intellectual. Yet, movies like Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010) were at times difficult to enjoy due to their cold protagonists, The Meyerowitz Stories develops their thematic concerns—the effects of bad parenting on young and adult children, how success is always relative, and the desire for a happier family—while its dimensional characters draw empathy and identification from the viewer to result in one of the best dramedies of the year.
We begin with how any Sandler vehicle should begin: his trademark yelling. He’s looking for a parking spot in Manhattan with his daughter Eliza (Grace van Patten), so that they can have dinner with Danny’s father Harold (Dustin Hoffman), his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and Harold’s fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). Here, in the opening minutes, Baumbach uses a comic scene to foreshadow the film’s deeper issues, for just as Danny’s search for a parking spot is futile, so too is his need to impress his father. Later, Danny will learn that the little things in life aren’t worth getting frustrated over, and that he shouldn’t always put his father before himself. Until then, he must help arrange a retrospective for his artist father, all the while contending with Harold’s arrogant outlook on life and disappointment with Danny for not pursuing his once-promising career as a musician.
After Eliza leaves to study Film at Bard—she makes arty sexploitation films for fun, and Baumbach has equal amounts of fun sending up the Student Film—Danny shares some time with Harold. They play pool, eat pancakes, watch Legal Eagles (1986), and briefly mention Matthew (Ben Stiller), Danny’s half-brother, who will soon be visiting from L.A. Before Matthew arrives, however, Harold receives a phone call from old friend L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), who invites him to his latest exhibition at MoMA. Harold and Danny wear tuxedos to the opening night, much to the enjoyment of everyone else, and before Harold begins to see the ‘average’ work on display, he hobbles out of the building, half shuffling, half running, as Danny chases in pursuit.
This might not sound like much of a first act, but those familiar with Baumbach’s work will know that the comedy and humanity of his films are conveyed primarily through the plentiful dialogue he gives to his characters. Nevertheless, once Matthew arrives in New York the family dynamic becomes more complex, and is complicated further still when Harold is hospitalised following a hematoma. The siblings grow closer as Harold’s condition deteriorates, yet there is, of course, more than one kerfuffle along the way, including an obligatory, awkward fist-fight between Danny and Matt.
Ultimately, what separates The Meyerowitz Stories from more conventional movies about failed ambitions and the difficulties of facing up to them is that Danny, despite his upper-middle-class privilege, is so ordinary as to almost be insignificant. Were this a Hollywood movie, he would probably sacrifice everything for a career in music, only stopping once he realised his dream. Instead, he grows to accept the way his life has turned out, yet makes minor changes to it so as to improve his overall quality of living. Baumbach understands that the ordinary character is not necessarily one who fulfils what one believes to be one’s purpose in life, but rather one who discovers the lifestyle that is most suited towards one’s needs and interests in life. Thankfully, his ordinary characters make for a compelling drama, and given that he’s released five features and a documentary in the last seven years, one can only hope that he’ll remain as prolific for the foreseeable future.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is available now on Netflix.