How comfortable are you with being uncomfortable? That’s a question The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) begins asking with its unwieldy, if not unreadable, title and challenges you to repeatedly answer for two hours of escalating discomfort. This is the persistence of life in the face of dysfunction. This is Noah Baumbach.
Noah Baumbach, of course, is the write-director of The Meyerowitz Stories and has written-directed several films, including The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and While We’re Young. Baumbach has a particular ability to put all of life’s difficulties we often feel are specific to ourselves through the prism of artistic dissatisfaction. His films have often dealt with an aging artist (novelist, filmmaker, sculptor) with regret about some, most, or all of their life. Dustin Hoffman takes on this role in The Meyerowitz Stories, playing Harold Meyerowitz, an aged sculptor whose best work is behind him and whose worst work, his three kids, cannot stand him.
Those three kids are Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). Well, to say they cannot stand their father is actually wrong. They actually stand him in spite of themselves. Harold’s self-perceived failure as an artist blinds him to his very real failure as a father, allowing this film to illustrate the trickle-down effect of misery. In Danny, Matthew, and Jean, we see three entirely distinct ways parenting can fuck someone up and three unique ways to cope with this.
There are several things I love about this movie. Another common theme for Baumbach is the presence of divorce and its effect on kids. Here, it is flatly stated “It’s difficult to have a relationship and a kid.” In its pursuit of this theme, The Meyerowitz Stories does well to demonstrate the fluidity of familial roles; namely a child becoming the parent or a parent becoming more like a sibling. Are these role changes good or bad? Ultimately, The Meyerowitz Stories is less concerned with providing rigid answers than with asking difficult questions.
The acting here has been getting a lot of award season buzz, particularly for Adam Sandler’s performance. I don’t know that I would say he stood out, but that’s not because he wasn’t great; it’s just that all the acting being done here is excellent. That’s not only a testament to the cast but also to Baumbach’s writing which managed to give each character sufficient time and efficiently used that time to create fully realized characters with entire lifetimes of experiences. Hot take: I think this Noah Baumbach guy has a future in this whole “writing” thing.
Seriously, though, the acting is stellar from top-to-bottom. If I were to single anyone out, it would probably be Grace Van Patten who plays Danny’s daughter Eliza. From the very outset of the movie, she and Adam Sandler have a father-daughter chemistry that, throughout the film, serves as a welcome lighthouse of comfort in the haze of anxiety. Still, though, Eliza and Danny are just one of several pockets of internal comfort being uncomfortably forced together here. If you’ve ever been to a family reunion, you know what I mean. You and your immediate family know each other and have a sort of shorthand with each. You may also have some cousins or an uncle or two you see regularly, so you feel alright with them. Then you have everyone else who you only ever see once a year; they do weird shit, and you don’t know what their deal is. This movie captures all of that, while also bringing Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who plays Harold’s current wife Maureen, together again. Aside, if you’ve not seen Last Chance Harvey, please do so.
One final thing I loved about this movie is the editing done by Jennifer Lame. The conceit of this movie is ostensibly that of an anthological look at this family. We learn who they all are by dropping into each of their lives at different points. That’s, if not groundbreaking, at least intriguing. What makes it work really well is where and how it cuts; what we see and what we don’t. The way this is edited helps it feel both disorienting and alive, in the best ways. It’s all about the discomfort.
Often, what there is to get from a Noah Baumbach film is not the observation of outward experiences but the introspection of our own thoughts and feelings. Is it healthier to embrace the expectation of love for family or to pursue the respect of yourself? The Meyerowitz Stories may not answer that, or anything, for you, but it will give you some difficult choices and let you see for yourself which one makes you least uncomfortable.