This may seem odd but when I watched The Meyerowitz Stories, which has no opening credits, I had no idea who wrote or directed it. Turns out it’s Noah Baumbach, and it fits firmly in his oeuvre, although more like While We Were Young, Greenberg, and The Squid and the Whale than the films he has co-made with Greta Gerwig. In looking at his resume, I’m interested to see that he co-wrote a film with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), because The Meyerowitz Stories plays like The Royal Tenenbaums, as re-imagined by Woody Allen.
I guess any movie about neurotic New York art types can be traced to Allen, but there are a lot of similarities. The movie centers around the relationship of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor who never got as famous as he wanted to be, and his three children. They are Adam Sandler, who gave up a musical career to be a house-husband for his daughter, now going off to college; a dowdy typical middle child (Elizabeth Marvel), who has grown used to and weary of being ignored, and Ben Stiller as a successful estate manager in Los Angeles, who had a different mother than the other two.
Hoffman is on his fourth wife (Emma Thompson), a lush, and Stiller is planning on selling all his artwork and his New York house, which Sandler is against. Hoffman is a buttoned-down man who is nevertheless full of rage and envy. He can’t tolerate the slightest bit of rudeness, and simmers with resentment that his old friend, Judd Hirsch, is getting a show at MoMa while he can only get in a group show at the school where he taught, Bard. Each child has their own problems with him–Sandler and Marvel were ignored by him, while Stiller was smothered. Yet Hoffman is largely oblivious to any of this and for an artist has no real self-reflection.
The first half of the film is much better than the second, when the plot takes a turn for the cliched. The dialogue is sparkling, and Allenesque–Hoffman at one point says, “Maugham was skillful, but not an artist,” which reminded me of the line Jeff Daniels had in The Squid and the Whale–“It’s minor Dickens.” Hoffman’s character is very much like Daniels’s in that film–intellectuals who have no real emotional connection to those around them.
The film has a number of sub-plots and surprise cameos. Sandler’s daughter is a film major at Bard who makes semi-pornographic films, featuring herself (that Sandler can watch them is a bit of a joke, I guess). She is played by Grace Van Patten, who I just saw in Tramps, and I wrote that she had a Shailene Woodley vibe. In this film, not knowing who she was, for a moment I thought she was Shailene Woodley. Someone should get them together in a sister movie. Adam Driver has one scene with Stiller that is very much like the scene with Michael Caine and Daniel Stern in Hannah and Her Sisters, Candice Bergen shows up for one scene as Stiller’s mother, and Sigourney Weaver plays herself. Hoffman can’t get over meeting her. “She said, ‘I’m Sigourney,’ and I said, ‘I’m Harold,'” he keeps repeating.
While I liked the movie a lot, it is very brittle. Part of this is Hoffman’s performance, which is not one-note but the man is one-note. His presence, though humorous, kind of set my teeth on edge. When he leaves the picture for a while, the film takes on a different tone. A scene in which Sandler and Stiller start by apologizing to each other but end up in a hapless fight is both funny and heartbreaking.
Sandler, devoid of any of his annoying tics from his low-brow comedies, is terrific, perhaps best in the opening scene, when he is trying to find a parking space in Manhattan (I’ve been through that). Stiller has the same neurotic anger he’s had in other Baumbach pictures, such as Greenberg and When We Were Young (where Charles Grodin basically plays the Hoffman character) and all the way back to Reality Bites. If I were giving career advice to Stiller I’d advise to play someone isn’t so pent up with stress. He should play a guru, or something.
The film was made by Netflix, and got a brief but necessary run for Oscar consideration. What remains to be seen is if the Motion Picture Academy, which was created and maintained by people in the film business, will embrace the streaming business. It will have to happen sooner or later, maybe it will here, but I’m guessing except for a writing nomination, it won’t happen this year.