Noah Baumbach returns to his old stomping ground but banks on quick-witted dialogue and terrific performances to ensure audiences have a pleasant time.
While Cannes has not exactly been light on controversy this year, one film in its lineup was easily singled out as a suspicious inclusion when the official selection was first announced. After all, not only does The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) bare the Netflix logo, it also carries in tow the reputation of one Adam Sandler. Sandler is an actor who has proven capable of eliciting emotion in films like Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, but whose recent string of reviled (if lucrative) clunkers includes The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over and Sandy Wexler (all of which are also Netflix fare).
Blissfully, in the hands of Noah Baumbach, Sandler transcends his usual shtick and rounds out a highly competent ensemble cast that together portrays the fractured Meyerowitz clan. Unfolding before our eyes as a series of chapters and anecdotes that span a period of months, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is nothing if not impressive in scope. It is also the sort of film that could easily lose audiences amid its rapid-fire dispersal of background and genealogical info were it not for Baumbach’s clever centering of the narrative on Harold, the family patriarch who neglected parental duties in his pursuit of an art career that never really took off.
Saddled with their share of baggage and personal hang-ups are his offspring from two different marriages: Danny (Sandler), a former musician and loving father to soon-to-be film school student Eliza (Grace Van Patten), his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), hugely successful and preparing the sale of the family’s New York apartment to compensate for Harold’s lack of income. While Danny is something of an unemployed disappointment in the eyes of his father, who does not recognize his musical gift, Matthew, clearly the favorite, is never explicitly validated as such and is only brought up in recurring stories that detail Harold’s artistic legacy. Jean, the only sibling not to get her own chapter, is never even on her father’s radar.
Even though The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) marks the finest hour in Sandler’s career (for the overall restraint and low-key sadness of his intimately affecting turn), Dustin Hoffman’s realization of an obstinate artist with delusions of grandeur is equally worthy of praise and arguably his most poignant performance in over a decade. As Harold he is eloquent yet pretentiously verbose and clinging to a memory of a former glory he never quite attained; a sad sort so preoccupied with himself he uses his children as little more than props or crutches to support his sense of self-importance, blind to the ways in which his effacing of them undermines their self-esteem and self-realization.
Stiller in turn, as the work-driven Matthew, is an excellent foil for his costars and gets his moment in the sun when delivering a speech at a group exhibition that features one of Harold’s sculptures while he is hanging on for dear life in the hospital as the result of a head injury. The moment Matthew breaks down in tears at the thought of having sold his dying father’s art collection Stiller expertly taps into the recognizable love-hate relationship with a relative who, for better and worse, continues to play an important role in one’s life. Remarkably, though very characteristic of Baumbach, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) gets the tragicomic balance just right from start to finish.
Despite being a roller coaster ride of confrontation and reconciliation in which estranged relatives unearth simmering traumas and really get to know one another in a bid to reconfigure their familial status quo there is plenty of room for hearty laughs along the way. Dry wit and situation comedy mix easily in Baumbach’s well-gauged script and offer a reprieve from the type of humor normally associated with Sandler even though the film also sports visual hijinks (such as when Sandler and Stiller team up to vandalize a car in a moment that is equal parts retributory and cathartic minutes before they turn to infighting and exchange blows in a physical altercation – the culmination of venting pent-up emotion and frustration).
By the time the end credits roll, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) fails to break new ground for Noah Baumbach, but his latest trip into familial dysfunction should have an easier time connecting with mainstream audiences than his previous works (hence explaining the Netflix purchase). Richly textured, three-dimensional characters mash well with actor chemistry that is infectious to watch. Unlike some of Cannes’ out-of-competition films that promise ‘endless vengeance’ and indeed leave audiences with the impression of having been subjected to an eternity of repetition (looking at you Blade of the Immortal and The Villainess), The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) whizzes by at an agreeable pace despite a near two hour runtime. This is a rare film not short on bittersweet sentiment and all the more engaging because of it.