With the end of 2017 almost here, I’m trying to catch up on some of the movies I missed throughout the year. Next up: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Noah Baumbach’s take on the increasingly familiar parent-in-hospital movie.
The Meyerowitz Stories is, on the surface, just another one of Noah Baumbach’s insular examinations of elitist East Coast types. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a frequently hilarious movie about how quickly we turn back into kids around our parents. Even below that, though, is a quietly profound film about what it’s like when long-suffering adults learn to redefine success and finally forgive their parents, flaws and all.
This is told primarily through the story of two half-brothers (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller) and their half-sister (Elizabeth Marvel) coming back together when their elderly father (Dustin Hoffman) ends up in the hospital after suffering a fall. The business of seeing to their father’s health quickly turns to the re-airing of old grievances. Two grown men end up having a childlike fight outside a museum. It’s surprisingly hilarious. And tragic. And sad.
As with most of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s work, this is all drawn from his own life. He most famously based his breakthrough film, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, on his own personal experience growing up in Brooklyn in the mid-80s and living through his parent’s divorce. Since that time, Baumbach’s grown older, married, become a father, divorced, and seen at least one parent through a critical hospital stay. Meyerowitz is his attempt to reflect on all of that, using a fictional family named after a mid-70s street photographer he admires to examine the lingering effects of divorce into adulthood. As Marvel told IndieWire, the characters in the film have to learn “we can either carry that bucket of shit for the rest of our lives, or we can try to thank our parents, and forgive them to the best of our ability.”
This is presented to us through a series of vignettes, each one demarcated by a title card. We watch as Sandler (playing an unemployed, failed musician who is actually a great father to his 18-year-old daughter) and Stiller (as a well-off money manager who long ago abandoned any artistic ambitions) have their separate, but equally belittling experiences with their father. He’s a once great sculptor or at least a sculptor who had one great piece back in the 70s followed by a career in teaching. In his increasingly bitter old age, he wields his passive aggressive scalpel with surgical precision, cutting down any of his children’s achievements, raising up their failures, and forever redirecting the topic to his own underappreciated genius. When he’s later described as a man still figuring out how to grow up even in his 80s it rings true.
The vignettes finally collide once he ends up in the hospital, thus bringing all of the characters together. This format works well enough for Sandler and Stiller, but as this is a movie written by a man reflecting on his own experiences with his father it is perhaps not surprising that subsequent vignettes showcasing Marvel’s character and Sandler’s daughter (played by star-in-waiting Grace Van Patten) are comparatively shorter and underwritten.
Perhaps that’s also just because their characters are the most well-adjusted of the bunch. Marvel happily works an anonymous office job and makes goofy movies for her co-workers. Van Patten attends the same college her grandpa taught at and makes artsy student films which rather bluntly chronicle her attempts to take ownership of her sexual agency.
It’s left to Sandler and Stiller, then, to be the ones who have to finally learn how to balance the man they thought their father was with who he actually is. “If dad’s not a great artist, that means he was just a prick,” Stiller later says in one of the most affecting moments in what turns out to be Baumbach’s most accessible and probably best films since The Squid and the Whale.
The Meyerowitz Stories is on Netflix.