Note: This review contains some minor spoilers.
There’s a scene late in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) where Danny Meyerowitz, played by Adam Sandler, overwhelmed by a sense of being a forgotten eldest son, picks up a plate of perfectly good cookies and smashes it onto the ground. The camera stays with Sandler, whose face is a muted version of his early career go-to look, that wild rage more familiar to fans of Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison than Noah Baumbach, a filmmaker well-known for creating movies built upon family dysfunction than angry hockey-players-turned-golfers. Yet Sandler never allows the rage to turn into caricature, instead it feels like the pay-off to what’s been building since the beginning of the film, which begins with Danny trying to park his car on a busy block in New York City, before giving into his daughter’s request that they “garage it.”
Baumbach, like PT Anderson (Punch Drunk Love) and Mike Binder (Reign Over Me)—and to a lesser extent Judd Apatow–before him, understands that part of what made those early Sandler roles funny is because there really are people who rage the way Happy or Billy do, but that common courtesy and tact force most of those people to allow the emotions to boil under the surface, only to see them explode without warning and with little regard for how they come across. The plate tossing incident is handled by Sandler with the grace of an actor you wouldn’t expect if you hadn’t seen some of his aforementioned work (along with Spanglish, another in his mid-career “serious” roles); if you have, then you know that what you’re seeing is some of Sandler’s strongest roles to date.
The film overall also happens to be some of Baumbach’s most approachable. His earlier works, like 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, 2007’s Margot at the Wedding and 2010’s Greenberg, generally felt claustrophobic and uncomfortable, a little too honed in for their own good. They also relished in the fact that their main characters were flawed, and this often seemed to be the only thing the writer/director cared much about. The inclusion of Greta Gerwig into his community of actors and collaborators with 2012’s Frances Ha turned the corner on things, as he allow himself to still dabble in the flaws of his characters, but also introduced a little reality into the proceedings, a little humor, a little more believable humanity. He followed that up with 2014’s While We’re Young, which possessed a kinetic energy previously unseen in a Baumbach film, mostly because of the zany performances of Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried, all the while retaining the filmmaker’s signature characters and a dose of honesty.
Meyerowitz follows very much in Young‘s footsteps, although the comedy is more controlled, more rooted in anger and despair than the latter’s manic discontent with life, although that, a staple of Baumbach’s movies, still lingers on the surface of the interactions between the members of the Meyerowitz family, which includes Sandler’s Danny, Ben Stiller’s half-brother Matthew, Elizabeth Marvel’s Jean, Dustin Hoffman’s patriarch Harold and his fourth wife, Emma Thompson’s Maureen. In some ways, then, this film (a Netflix original, by the way, a first for Baumbach) serves as a bridge between the outright melancholy of the director’s earliest works and the lunacy of his last few. It does dip into sadness, especially during the latter part of the film where Hoffman’s Harold ends up in the hospital (via a really well-orchestrated build up by the script), which forces all the anger and disconnection felt by the adult children to come to a head in the form of the movie’s only too-silly moment (things come to literal fisticuffs, and it feels a little forced). The scenes that follow that misstep, however, more than make up for it, as both Stiller and Sandler are given opportunities to further develop the complicated arcs of their characters.
To be sure, this is an actor’s film, and Baumbach has casted it well. The development of the main core of characters is generally strong (although Thompson’s Maureen has both the least to do and the least depth of character), and the pressure felt by each of the children to be something that none of them felt capable of being is palpable; they are each a disappointment to their absent father, who seems unable to even remember which of his kids was present during one of the creation of a much-discussed sculpture, named for his second son, that maybe didn’t involve Matthew at all (this slight twist is both well handled by Hoffman and Stiller in a scene near the end and not over-played by Baumbach, whose direction is good throughout). This realization is one of the film’s many winning moves.
The film has another quirk, one which pays off, so to speak, at the end. The editing often cuts off dialogue mid-sentence, as if the director is too impatient to see the scene through. But I don’t think it’s that simple. To me, this feels like how this family interacts with each other; nobody sticks around long enough to see how their choices impact the rest of the family, either because they don’t care or because they don’t want to deal with what they expect the consequences to be. Stiller’s Matthew moved to LA long before the movie begins, and has been married to a woman his family has never met and has a child in the same situation. Danny is separated and nearing divorce from his wife at the same time his daughter is leaving for college (the film makes it clear this was on purpose), leaving him homeless and living with his father in a house that was never his. Jean, the enigma of enigmas, feels like the least important of the trio, but later admits a secret from her childhood and that her desire to be a good person keeps her coming back for her deadbeat father in spite the fact that he wasn’t ever there for her. These are people who’ve lost patience for one another, and yet, the film presents characters looking for redemption through one another, especially once it’s clear there’s little hope for their relationships with their father.
The ending is likely to be divisive. It follows the trend set up by much of the rest of the movie, closing the scene without much explanation. In the scene, Eliza, Danny’s daughter, walks through a warehouse at her university, where her grandfather taught art and recently had his sculptures showcased, only to be led to a single crate marked with his name, and the screen immediately fades to black instead of lingering on the shot. My wife, for one, thought the ending felt incomplete (she said she liked the movie “up until the ending”), but I’ve got the opposite viewpoint: the ending felt just right for the movie. Rather than forcing the viewer to see the end in one particular way, Baumbach’s choice feels akin to the end of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where the audience is left wondering if the top falls or not. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)‘s ending suggests what the title tells us from the outset: there is more to this story than what this film shows us. What Eliza finds there is up to our imagination, as is what comes of the rest of the relationships in the film. There’s a hopefulness to this that isn’t always present in Baumbach’s films, and it’s refreshing, especially since the actors created such real and likable people; you want them to get better, and the open-ended nature of the film’s final scene gives you hope that maybe they will.