Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) has been living one kind of artistic life since it debuted at Cannes in May. But the story of an elderly sculptor (Dustin Hoffman) whose adult children are still nursing the wounds of his narcissistic parenting has the fortune, whether good or ill, to arrive in theaters and on Netflix at the end of a week in which the question of whether a creative person’s contributions to the world can outweigh his personal failings, and how shifting assessments can affect that calculation’s result. As one of Harold Meyerowitz’s children puts it, “If he isn’t a great artist, then he was just a prick.”
Baumbach’s monsters, such as Jeff Daniels’ passive-aggressive patriarch in The Squid and the Whale, are subtle, familiar. You’re probably related to one; you may even be one. The Meyerowitz Stories eases us into the family’s world behind a double layer of literary insulation: An onscreen chapter title followed by the written first sentence of the story: “Danny Meyerowitz was trying to park.” But the arch gentility that smothered Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding evaporates as Danny appears in the form of Adam Sandler navigating his way through Manhattan traffic in search of an elusive spot. Sandler’s Danny is so calm at first, talking through the upcoming start of college with his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), in the passenger seat, that he’s subtly unrecognizable—he looks like Adam Sandler, but he doesn’t seem like Adam Sandler, even in his previous dramatic roles. A formerly aspiring musician who has spent most of his daughter’s 17 years of life as a house husband, he’s turned almost completely inward, as if he’s underwater and trying not to use up too much oxygen. But Eliza’s imminent departure and Danny’s nearly finalized divorce are forcing him to stand on his own for the first time. And then there’s the matter of that damn parking place. Danny’s in high spirits, even singing along to an ’80s oldie in a cracked falsetto, but when an impatient driver lays on the horn as he’s scoping out a spot, he erupts in anger, and the camera cuts him off midscream.
Baumbach deploys those abrupt edits several times in The Meyerowitz Stories, often when a man, whether it’s Harold, Danny, or Danny’s half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller), is reaching peak apoplexy. On the one hand, it’s simply a matter of reducing redundancy: Too many of these fits of temper and we’d simply disconnect. But it also underlines how mundane they’ve become: It’s not even worth sticking around to see what all the fuss is about. Rage and resentment have become emotional wallpaper, so ubiquitous they’re barely noticed, but father and sons’ interactions would seem subtly off-kilter were they to vanish. (Fortunately, there is little danger of that.) Harold is angry because he’s never gotten the recognition he feels he deserves, unlike his contemporary L.J. (Judd Hirsch), who’s fêted with a MoMA retrospective as Harold struggles to place a single piece in a Bard faculty show. Danny is angry because he lived in his father’s shadow, feeling the impetus to be an artist but too shy to claim the mantle for himself, until he ended up a middle-aged single dad who’s effectively never worked for a living. Matthew is the family success story, a financial manager for wealthy entertainers who knows how to anticipate their needs because he spent so long trying to divine his father’s, but he also knows that as much as his father craves money—or at least the elevation of artistic reputation that comes with a high sales price—he doesn’t respect it.
The Meyerowitz women tend to fade into the background or fall off to the side. Harold’s current wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson), a flouncy hippie whose cooking skills leave much to be desired, plays at first like a subversive caricature, but it never deepens beyond our initial perceptions, and while Danny’s mousy sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), finally gets a story of her own—the only female character to do so—it’s a literal parenthetical called “(Jean’s Story)” whose main purpose is to throw her male siblings’ impulsiveness into sharper relief. Baumbach’s last several films have benefited both in front of and behind the camera from the presence of his partner, Greta Gerwig, and with her off directing the delightful Lady Bird, her contributions are sorely missed here.
Eliza, at least, has a chance to escape the family’s, and the film’s, patterns: She takes up filmmaking in college, and while her movies, antic shorts about the adventures of an intersexual superhero called Pagina-Man, play uncomfortably like a middle-aged man’s idea of what The Kids Are Up to These Days—it’s far less acute of a portrait than the twentysomething hipsters Baumbach sent up in While We’re Young—the warmth and sharpness of Van Patten’s performance allows the film to breathe for brief moments and gives you some hope that at least one of the Meyerowitzes might make it out alive. (Getting out seems to work well across the board: Candice Bergen’s single scene as one of Harold’s ex-wives climaxes with a moment of plainspoken emotional openness that couldn’t exist anywhere else in the movie.)
It’s easy to make The Meyerowitz Stories sound tortured, and less so to convey the immense but not blinding affection with which Baumbach treats his characters. As in The Squid and the Whale, there’s something strangely appealing about his broken onscreen families. (Who wouldn’t want to see their divorced parents politely arguing over a copy of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks?) When Danny talks about his father’s “famous blueberry pancakes,” you can see in his practiced hand motions an echo of long-vanished childhood traditions, the kinds of things that bind families together whether they like it or not, and the phrase punch in the nose floats from one character to the next like a cherished family heirloom. It’s infuriating to watch Danny and Harold talk past each other while thinking they’re having a genuine conversation, but their studied ignorance of each other, their determination to not give an inch of ground, is almost beautiful in its purity. They’re perfect for each other.