“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra, just for you.”
So wrote Philip Larkin in his poem ‘This Be the Verse’, and while the works of Noah Baumbach are usually a bit warmer than those of the misanthropic Yorkshire poet, this sentiment runs deep through the director’s latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).
In this case, the dad in question is Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a cantankerous old artist who casts a formidable shadow over his three children, from whom he expects everything and nothing at the same time. He spends his days lamenting the decline of his career, for he was once an artist of some esteem, and driving the rest of his family to madness with his self-centred stubbornness.
His children, now all grown up and getting on with their own lives, are all drawn back to the family home in New York to attend a retrospective of their father’s work, which gives them all an opportunity to revisit their relationship with him and with each other.
It’s the same sort of dysfunctional family setup that we saw in Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), and indeed, Harold Meyerowitz shares many of the worst traits of Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), the arrogant, dismissive patriarch in that film. The difference is that where the eldest Berkman child is keen to emulate his father’s sneery academic view of the world, the Meyerowitz’s are determined not to end up like their isolated, cynical parent.
Like Frances in Frances Ha (2012), Brooke in Mistress America (2015), and many of Noah Baumbach’s other characters, the Meyerowitz’s are all looking for something. The film opens with Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) doing laps around a New York city block in his car, trying to find a parking space, all the while explaining to his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), how he is usually so good at finding one. The city is as omnipresent in The Meyerowitz Stories as it is in most of Baumbach’s other films, the familiar brownstone tenements here acting as a symbol of Danny’s own dislocation. He can’t find his place in the world and neither can he find a place to park his car.
His siblings are similarly affected. Matthew (Ben Stiller) has found professional success and the wealth that goes with it, but he’s so busy escaping his father’s influence and exceeding his accomplishments in other ways that he becomes estranged from his own family. There’s a running joke throughout the film that despite his complaints about his father, Matthew was always Harold’s favourite, to the point where the old man names one of his sculptures after him. Matthew, however, has been so focused on living his life in opposition to Harold, doing all the things his father wouldn’t or couldn’t do, that he has neglected his own family, failing to provide them with the same care and attention that he is said to have received as a child.
And then there’s Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), Harold’s daughter, and the one of his children who is most consistently overshadowed by her siblings. She is quiet but dependable, downtrodden but amiable, and she often melts into the background when Danny and Matt are on the scene. At one point, Jean opens up about some abuse she received in the past, causing her brothers to enact some petty revenge on the perpetrator in a misguided show of solidarity. Despite their good intentions, however, all they end up doing is hijacking their sister’s misery to vent their own frustrations.
Despite the good humour with which these characters are brought together, there is a note of melancholy running throughout the film. This bunch of people are lost, and while the characters in Frances Ha and Mistress America might too be caught adrift, at least they have a plan for themselves, however idealistic or unattainable. The Meyerowitz’s don’t seem to know where they’re going at all. They don’t have an idea of where they want to be or what they want to do, they only know what they don’t want to turn out like. This might be the most cynical of Noah Baumbach’s most recent films, but there is something deeply familiar in how ill-prepared this family seems for the challenges that life throws their way.
In the end, though, The Meyerowitz Stories refutes Philip Larkin’s pessimistic view of parenthood. For despite his faults, Danny is a good father to Eliza, who has turned into a confident, engaging young woman, someone who is just as at ease sharing her sexually explicit student films with her family as she is looking after her father when his dodgy hip starts to play up. Her grandfather might have been the one to bring her family together, but she is the one who cracks its shell.
Not only is this one of Baumbach’s best films, it also sees Adam Sandler return to the ‘serious’ work with which he won so many people over after Punch-Drunk Love (2002). After the critical kicking he’s taken throughout his career, there’s something strangely appropriate about him taking on a character as redemptive as Danny Meyerowitz.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) breaks the Baumbach mould in a few ways and indicates that the prolific director is still finding new ways to tell his tales. As the title suggests, the film is broken down into segments like short stories, each one of them focusing on a different member of the family. It feels wider in scope as a result: the one or two central figures that usually drive Noah Baumbach’s films are instead replaced by an ensemble in which the story of each individual member is delicately told. Its warmth, perceptiveness and sharp dialogue mean it is unmistakeably one of his films, but its protagonists don’t seem so isolated by their neuroses. For better or worse, they have their family around them.
Country: USA Language: English Year: 2017 Director: Noah Baumbach Writer: Noah Baumbach Starring: Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Grace Van Patten, Elizabeth Marvel Runtime: 112 minutes
The Squid and the Whale (2005) – They might not admit it themselves, but the Berkman family are a car crash. Divorcing parents, an arrogant, plagiarising son and another young teenager with a drinking problem: all is not happy in paradise. One of Noah Baumbach’s most celebrated films, and also one of his least joyous, The Squid and the Whale is equally difficult and incredible to watch. Jeff Daniels is excellent as the haughty academic patriarch of the family, and Jesse Eisenberg plays well the role of the son hanging on to his father’s coat-tails.