Cannes 2017 Review: The Meyerowitz Stories
Noah Baumbach set out on a mission: to get a good performance out of Adam Sandler. Many have tried, most have failed. The most notable success was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, 15 years ago. Fortunately, Baumbach was able to channel that bravura performance in his latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Classic). The film serves as a sort of spirit sequel to The Squid and the Whale with its tale of a dysfunctional family. Even though The Meyerowitz Stories never reaches the heights of Baumbach’s Jesse Eisenberg starring magnum opus, it is his finest and best-acted film since.
The Meyerowitz family is led by patriarch Harold (Justin Hoffman), a New York-based sculptor who is haunted by the minor reception of his artwork. Also living in New York are two of his children: Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). Neither has seen much success in their personal lives, especially Danny who is an unemployed pianist and recent divorcee. Their half-brother, Matthew, is a young business owner who has found much more prosperity in his personal affairs. When Harold’s health begins to fail, his children all have to come together to take care of him and his upcoming gallery opening.
Clearly, this isn’t breaking any new ground for Baumbach, but it is an invited recapitulation of his earlier work. It keeps the literary elements that he has played with his whole career, but his artistic and musical interpolations are fun and equally intelligent.
Thematically, the film is Baumbachian in its take that “all parents inevitably screw up their children.” Harold was married to many women — Jean and Danny were raised from one marriage and Matthew another. The older siblings were neglected by their father and they attribute their future failures to this. On the other hand, Matthew was coddled growing up but hasn’t received Harold’s approval in his adult life. An animosity boils beneath the surface between the siblings as their perceptions of each other are misconstrued. Jean and Danny carry with them the feeling of being a failure, yet they tend to their father and his latest wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). Meanwhile, Matthew is jealous of their closeness and approval, yet he’s distanced himself from his family. The film’s confrontation of failure is harshly universal and makes this Baumbach’s most touching film.
The film takes place as Danny’s daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), is heading to her first year of college. She has been accepted as a film major at Harold’s alma mater and where he taught until his recent retirement. The connection between Eliza and Danny is very tender and makes for Sandler’s best moments. The most heartbreaking and beautiful moment in the film is a reflection on Eliza childhood and Danny’s failed marriage. Danny plays the piano while he and Eliza sing a duet that they wrote together when she was a kid. Their dynamic is rewarding in the sense that it shows that, despite Danny’s losses, he still has been successful in one of the most important parts of his life.
Overall, Sandler’s performance is the revelation of the starry cast. His turn as Danny makes it seem as if he has been playing emotionally complicated characters his whole life. It is an expressive, vulnerable and honest performance, yet it is matched by everyone in the cast. Hoffman plays Harold with a suffocating repetitiveness and general likability, fueling his contradictory status as a negligent parent without coming off as an atrocious person. However, the film’s stand out is Marvel, whose eccentric performance as Jean is unlike anything else in the movie. She delivers her comedic moments with a deadpan monotone, but her emotional arc is just as powerful as her brother’s. She gets the least screen time of the three adult children, but she’s the most neglected — in this way, the writing lends to the performance in a subtly depressing way.
Fans of the zany, Greta Gerwig-era Baumbach may not find the same charms in The Meyerowitz Stories. Compared to some of his more outlandish films, it is a pretty plainly told dramedy. But, the strangeness that is present in most of his work is there, especially in the pornographic short films Eliza makes for class. Here, Baumbach trades in off-beat weirdness for realized melancholy humor. However, there is no doubt that this is his movie. Like his most major works, it shows New York as a place where everyone is stuck in the past, having a hard time looking forward.