All of Noah Baumbach’s films seem to be about families in flux, and The Meyerowitz Stories is no different. Harold (Dustin Hoffman) is the patriarch of the Meyerowitz family, but the film focuses more on his adult children: Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). In most films about dysfunctional families, the siblings are usually at odds with one another before learning to come together. Baumbach, in a certain way, flips the script here by having most of the drama come from each of their individual relationships to their pompous, judgmental, and often-narcissistic father.
Of course, Harold’s an artist (a sculptor, to be exact) who spends his retired years watching the Mets and doing his best to prolong his artistic legacy. Harold and his work, however, seem to have been forgotten, evidenced in a scene when he visits a friend’s art exhibition. Harold spends the evening making small talk while wryly ridiculing his friend’s artwork for its “superficial bravura.” He’s a very bitter man who’s too stubborn to see how this anger impacts those around him, and his relationship with his kids is strained because of this lack of self-awareness. Only, his children are quickly forced to confront these repressed feelings about their father when he becomes ill.
Harold isn’t the only artist in the family—if he was, this wouldn’t be a Baumbach movie. Danny is a former pianist turned stay-at-home dad, Jean had a penchant for photography before becoming a finance manager, and Eliza (Danny’s daughter) is studying filmmaking in college. Part of the conflict that arises between the siblings and Harold is in relation to their artistic pursuits or lack thereof. Danny looks up to his father for his commitment to his art, while his father neglects him for giving up the piano, and Matthew sees his father as a failed artist.
If you couldn’t tell already, The Meyerowitz Stories spends much of its time inside a very well insulated bubble of New York intellectualism. Hoffman’s character seems to only talk in monologue, and when he does, you can tell that he’s going out of his way to sound as pretentious as possible. Stiller and Marvel fit the mold too, but Sandler’s character, as you would imagine, is an outlier—and that’s the point. Much has been said about Sandler’s fantastic performance, and for good reason. Sandler’s name has become synonymous with so many of the unfunny and tedious movies he’s been making, but he really excels, both in comedy and drama, under the direction of a talented filmmaker. Like Paul Thomas Anderson did in Punch Drunk Love, Baumbach took Sandler’s awkward comedic persona and played it for tragic comedy. His character is loud, unpolished, and angry (like many of Sandler’s characters from his comedies), but in The Meyerowitz Stories, his character has an internal life and backstory that explain why he is the way he is. Stiller, Marvel, and Hoffman are all great, but Sandler’s the clear standout.
Baumbach’s writing certainly helps elevate these performances, as well. His dialogue is often littered with dry humor and relatable remarks. At one point, Danny’s daughter asks her father if he’s heard of the photographer, Cindy Sherman. Insulted, Danny informs her that, “I love Cindy Sherman. I told you about Cindy Sherman two years ago … you had absolutely no interest.” Everyone’s had a similar conversation with a parent, and it’s completely relatable while also implicitly providing characterization. From this one exchange, we can understand that Danny feels underappreciated, while his daughter is clearly growing up and discovering the world on her own.
It’d be easy for Baumbach to look down on some of his characters for their snobbish personalities and air of intellectual elitism, but The Meyerowitz Stories may be the most levelheaded and tender of his films. His characters have many obvious flaws, but he finds a way to make them sympathetic and relatable, and this relatability is comforting in the same way that many of Woody Allen’s films are comforting. Baumbach hasn’t set out to make any groundbreaking films—instead, he makes cathartic films. You’ll definitely laugh along the way, but by the end, you’ll realize that there’s been an undercurrent of melancholy and dysfunction throughout. We take comfort in recognizing this, and we wait and see how these characters will deal with their pain.
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