The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected): Families, Because They F — — You Up
There are two, indisputable truths in the world: All art is political and Adam Sandler can act. Yes, that Adam Sandler, the same Adam Sandler who’s made an incredibly profitable career out of a series of low-brow, self-loathing comedies. Every few years, Sandler will set aside his talent-wasting ways and appear in a prestige or semi-prestige comedy drama (e.g., Funny People, Reign Over Me, Punch Drunk Love), before inevitably succumbing to his innate desire to be loved and admired, if not necessarily, respected by an ever-diminishing fanbase. But we’re here not to bury Sandler — he’s years, if not decades away from a career-long obituary — but to praise him in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s (Mistress America, While We’re Young, Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale) latest exploration of love, life, and failure among New York City’s social, cultural, and artistic elites, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).
Sandler’s character, Danny Meyerowitz, isn’t at the center of the J.D. Salinger-inspired The Meyerowitz Stories, but his estranged family certainly is. The Meyerowitz clan takes the “fun” out of dysfunctional and replaces it with bitterness, regret, and despair. Well into his forties without a job, a marriage, or a home, Danny does what any man without any other options except homelessness would do: He moves back in with his father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), an egotistical, narcissistic Harold, a second- or third-rate sculptor and retired art instructor, and Danny’s latest, presumably last, step-mother, Maureen (Emma Thompson). While the self-involved Harold prattles on ceaselessly about art, the New York art scene, and the woeful New York Mets to anyone with earshot, Danny tries to maintain a once close relationship with his eighteen-year-old, off-to-college, experimental filmmaker daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten).
Returning home — or to a semblance of home — brings out the worst in Danny, his insecurities, his anxieties, and his self-loathing over a life half-lived in the shadows of both his father and Danny’s younger, far more successful half-brother, Michael (Ben Stiller). A successful, LA-based business manager, Michael looms large, figuratively, if not literally, in Danny’s grievances against his father and by extension, the world. Where Harold granted Michael “Most Favored Son” status, Danny received the “Least Likely to Succeed” tag and lived up — or down — to expectations. Danny’s older sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), exists ghostlike in the periphery. She shares some of the same long-term emotional damage Harold inflicted on Danny, but has seemingly found a way to adjust, if not always coexist, with her father and all of his maddening complexities, contradictions, and paradoxes.
Conflict inevitably makes an appearance, especially after Michael, long the prodigal son living a wholly separate life on the West Coast, makes an extended return of his own. When a frustrated Michael, his calm, collected façade all but shattered by an afternoon spent with his mercurial father, asks (to no one in particular) why he can’t hold it together and reverts back to a long-dormant, destructive pattern of father-son interaction, he’s both uttering a truism-bordering-on-cliché, but also speaking for every member of the audience with a parent, a child, or a sibling (i.e., everyone). A similar destructive pattern threatens the possibility of reconciliation between Danny and Michael: Each harbors long-held grudges, complaints, and resentments toward the other, subjective truths that when exposed, don’t become objective truths, but non-truths or truths of little or no consequence.
As a filmmaker, the Brooklyn-born Baumbach has stubbornly clung to “write what you know” adage and what he knows — and continues to know apparently — is an extremely self-selected, particular social, cultural, and artistic class (e.g., family, peers). From one perspective, it’s an unnecessary, self-imposed, potentially reactionary limitation. From another, Baumbach has repeatedly taken those self-imposed limitations and created well-crafted, insightful, provocative character studies. He’s also repeatedly shown himself to be less interested in success, financial, artistic, and social, than with failure and what failure, regardless of age, does to his characters’ ever-shifting perspectives on love, life, and everything in between. There’s more than a hint or whiff of tragicomedy in Baumbach’s characters and to his credit, he doesn’t condescend or patronize his characters. Instead, he treats them with warmth and compassion. He even dares to hope that moviegoers will feel the same regardless of a particular actor or the quality (or lack thereof) his previous work. It’s a dare more moviegoers should make.