Often it takes a return to the familiar to make a change. Those well-versed with indie writer/director Noah Baumbach’s work, particularly his Oscar-nominated comedy-drama The Squid and the Whale, will watch his latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories with a distinct feeling of déjà vu.
Glitches in the matrix aside, The Meyerowitz Stories plays very much like the spiritual sequel to Baumbach’s jr. feature, with characteristic New York-isms, middle-class culture, and a rich intellectual and artistic literacy. OK, most of those are indicative in all his works, but perhaps the most specific, and indeed the most salient parallel is the family dynamic at the centre of it all. The story hinges around a retired artist and lecturer, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), and his relationship with his three adult children leading up to a retrospective show celebrating his work as a sculptor.
It’s in Harold and his likeness to Jeff Daniels’ Bernard that The Meyerowitz Stories echoes The Squid and the Whale the loudest: in his artistic hubris, his speech (both have a fondness of the descriptors “elegant” and “handsome”), even his beard. The focus on his relationship with his children is another shared theme, though in the case of The Meyerowitz Stories they’re adults—no superficial detail, acting as the perspective shift needed to elevate this from purely a 2005 retread.
We see the character of Harold, and the story as a whole, from the perspective of these three children: Danny (Adam Sandler), a somewhat scruffy but endearing 40-something with a gimpy leg and a particularly short fuse when it comes to parking; Mathew (Ben Stiller), Danny’s younger and more successful half-brother; and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), the eldest, largely forgotten daughter with an odd run. Unlike in The Squid, having the children as adults positions us in the retrospect, which has a few minor, but important, effects. Firstly it means that Hoffman’s Harold is an older, somewhat softer character than Daniels’, a fact both intrinsic to their writing (Harold is more quirky and far less bitter), but also an organic product of seeing him through nostalgic eyes. Stiller’s Mathew says about his father:
This safety-from-a-distance has a lightening effect on the character of Harold and affords The Meyerowitz Stories the levity The Squid and the Whale was so sorely missing. It’s mostly supplied by the cast, with much of Baumbach’s genius as a director coming from coaxing the best out of his actors. The sibling tryptic of Sandler, Stiller and Marvel, along with Hoffman and supporting roles from Emma Thompson, is surely the film’s greatest success.
Marvel’s Jean, though actively side-lined (a fact Baumbach is very self-aware of), is a recurring scene stealer; but the jewel performance is Sandler’s Danny, a fact even more joyous in light of his recent (not really that recent) slide into inferiority. Like in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punk Drunk Love, Sandler has a lot to give, delivering his most organic and unaffected performance ever — even, maybe, his best. The parking scenes, defined by his trademark, expletive-laden hollering, feel less like a call back to his earlier comic roles than they do a catharsis, for Danny and his parking manoeuvre but too for Sandler and his recent career — both are struggling to fit. But he’s found his place, around a dinner table eating the worst shark in New York, surrounded by those he loves (and kind of hates).
That’s the Meyerowitz story, one that’s repeatedly funny, markedly true and thus always recognisable to anyone familiar — with family.