Noah Baumbach has always been a writer-director of no formal distinction, but he’s possessed with a keen eye and ear for the intricacies of pettiness, humiliation, and schadenfreude. His new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected), concerning a family of neurotic middle-aged New Yorkers attempting to come to grips with the imminent demise of their sculptor father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), duly feels like a retread of past works (and not just Baumbach’s), if better structured and finer-grained than most. It appreciates life’s vastness and maddening repetition; its screenplay is emotionally sprawling but peripatetic in the telling. Baumbach makes a lived-in milieu feel instantly familiar as Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) and his teenage daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), pause in the middle of their search for a parking spot to enjoy Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s “Head to Toe” on the radio, before the inevitable New York City honking and screaming resumes.
Danny takes Eliza to visit Harold and his wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson), whose name her husband inevitably pronounces as “Marine,” resulting in a rambling, open-ended conversation about the just-retired patriarch’s pending legacy and collection of works. Harold is a particular type of cantankerous; he can’t allow anyone to be praised higher than himself and is equally obsessed with success and rationalizing his own lack thereof. Danny finds out his younger brother, Matt (Ben Stiller), a wealth management consultant out in L.A., has already drawn up a plan with Maureen to donate Harold’s work and sell the old man’s apartment. Even if he finds this abhorrent, he’s compromised by the fact that he’s currently jobless and separated from Eliza’s mother—needing to crash with Harold and Maureen for the indefinite future.
Harold had Danny and his sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), with an unnamed earlier wife, while the younger Matt was bestowed golden-child status by Harold and his next wife, Julia (Candice Bergen). This is one of myriad childhood indignities catalogued by the siblings once Harold has been hospitalized for a chronic subdural hematoma—the life-threatening byproduct of a hit on the head that occurred the summer before the story begins. (Throughout, the film uncannily depicts the paradox of adult children anxiously worrying after their parents’ ability to care for themselves.) Danny and Jean set about organizing a Meyerowitz retrospective at Bard, where Eliza is a freshman (making hilarious, Ryan Trecartin-tinged art pornos to the chagrin of her surrounding adults), and where Harold taught for many years.
This is a cunning and frequently hilarious film about exhuming the past and finding no diamond in the rough.
Danny feels like the sobered sequel to all those lost boys that Sandler played in the 1990s and the 2000s, and as in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, the actor turns on a dime from vulnerable irritant to chest-thumping alpha male. There’s an added layer of meta-cinematic sadness at play here: Just as many of us spend our adulthoods realizing how thoroughly trapped we are within ourselves, Sandler’s unwillingness to compromise his signature persona over the last two decades means that the stakes for a dramatic turn have always been lower than they could have. He may not disappear into a bold new character here, but it’s more than enough that he plausibly embodies Danny, especially against Stiller’s straight-man routine.
Baumbach’s characters have a way of repeating key phrases throughout the film: Maureen refers to Harold as “the dad,” Harold calls Los Angeles “the coast,” and Danny uses the same excuse to explain away his perpetual limp every time. The family mythologies bearing down on the siblings are as droll as they are claustrophobic. Jean laments her perpetual sidelining by bigger macho personalities, but Baumbach hardly resets the narrative balance in her favor, because, in the end, this is still Danny and Matt’s story.
For all the warmth of these accumulated details, The Meyerowitz Stories may be Baumbach’s most cutting work since The Squid and the Whale, a more bluntly autobiographical work whose success the filmmaker has visibly strained to put behind him, recently toggling modes of pseudo-mumblecore (Frances Ha) and go-for-broke buffoonery disguised as high-concept satire (While We’re Young). Harold is revealed to have been a worse father with each development, while Danny and Matt both want terribly to make amends with him (and each other) before time runs out—culminating in a fistfight on the Bard campus moments before the kickoff of Harold’s retrospective.
This breakthrough between siblings feels forced and hollow, but maybe that’s a piercing comment on how easy it is to get one’s hopes up in a crisis: These passages give way to a surprisingly bitter irresolution, wherein everyone finds a new way to rethink their relationship to the family except Harold. Baumbach has made a cunning and frequently hilarious film about exhuming the past and finding no diamond in the rough—a story wholly aware, as Matt puts it, that “there’s no catharsis in shouting at an old person who’s dying.”