*** ½ (out of 4)
Noah Baumbach is probably best known for his 2005 work The Squid and the Whale: a film that, aside from winning near-universal critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination, cemented his status as the master chronicler of the bohemian lifestyle. As with all of Baumbach’s movies, the basic plot of Squid – two kids cope with their parents’ divorce – didn’t matter as much as the vibrant character portraits it sketched out: Jeff Daniels’ arrogant, failing writer, Laura Linney’s sexually-unsatisfied mom, Jesse Eisenberg’s antisocial nerd, and Owen Kline’s insecure adolescent. With them, the overall film succeeded in providing a riveting, hilarious depiction of a family in crisis – and in so doing also offered a pointed look at the petty things smart people will do to protect their egos.
Now, 12 years and seven films later, Baumbach’s latest family saga, The Meyerowitz Stories, has returned to the setup that once served Baumbach so well. The two half-brother protagonists of this new endeavor – one a divorced father named Danny (Adam Sandler), the other a successful businessman named Matthew (Ben Stiller) – carry over the “Mom likes you better!” combativeness of Eisenberg’s Walt and Kline’s Frank. Meanwhile, Danny and Matthew’s father, a serial marrier named Harold (Dustin Hoffman), is a retired sculptor who, like Daniels’ Bernard, criticizes better-known colleagues in order to deflect attention from his own failures. There are other Meyerowitzes who admittedly don’t directly map to anyone in Squid: Danny and Matthew’s meek sister (Elizabeth Marvel), Danny’s idealistic daughter (Grace Van Patten), and Harold’s absent-minded fourth wife (Emma Thompson). But these additions don’t change the fact that with the Meyerowitzes, vitriolic feuds and defensive ego mechanisms prove just as much in vogue as they were at the Berkmans’.
Overall, Meyerowitz turns out to be just as funny as Squid. In its best moments, moreover, you could almost say that Meyerowitz shows just how much the story and characters of Squid have “grown up.” Stylistically, it eschews Squid’s rough, all-consuming handheld shots in favor of wider, detached setups that lend a touch of melancholy to the film’s generally comedic atmosphere. And from a thematic perspective, the Meyerowitzes clearly share the Berkmans’ penchant for verbal sparring. But while the latter family never demonstrated even the remotest capacity for self-awareness, the Meyerowitzes’ arguments lack the unremitting intensity of their peers’; on some unconscious level, it’s as though Danny, Matthew, Harold et al. have begun to grasp the fact that they argue in order to avoid facing up to their ineffectualness as spouses, parents, and professionals.
On every front, then, Meyerowitz serves as a belated yet meaningful coming-of-age follow-up to Baumbach’s past work. If there’s one thing that undermines it, however, it’s that parts of it suffer from an avoidable case of emotional phoniness. At several points in the story, after all, Baumbach variously uses distracting humor and abrupt editing to undermine the climaxes his script has been building up to – as though he suddenly got cold feet and decided he’d rather not seriously deal with his characters’ emotions. (For a perfect example of this, see the ending, where conveniently-timed cuts absolve the film of the responsibility of fleshing out a series of confrontations between Danny, Matthew, and Harold.) Baumbach obviously wants to avoid getting bogged down in sappy melodrama, and his unwillingness to supply easy, neat resolutions to the Meyerowitzes’ many problems is understandable. But in truncating his story’s emotional moments, he periodically ends up doing what Ruben Östlund does in The Square: dodge the difficult in favor of the snappy and eye-catching.
Still, Baumbach’s occasional reluctance to develop his story’s emotional nuances is more than made up for by the movie’s exceptional performances. Each member of the line-up does a marvelous job bringing out the essence of his/her character: Hoffman makes for an impeccable patriarch, Marvel a hilarious incarnation of the “youngest child” trope, and Sandler a surprisingly good fit for a not-completely-stupid role. Together, they form a series of caricatures reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s The Village of Stepanchikovo in their evocation of a world of latent-but-inescapable absurdity. So don’t worry if Baumbach’s bohemian cheekiness doesn’t resonate with you: here, you’ll still be able to enjoy one of the most compelling ensemble casts of the year. And if nothing else, the sight of Paginaman – a hermaphroditic superhero created by Danny’s daughter for a filmmaking project – is guaranteed to make your day.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Adam Driver, Grace Van Patten
Running Time: 112 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated (Released on Netflix)
Produced by: Noah Baumbach, Scott Rudin, Lila Yacoub, Eli Bush
Written and Directed by: Noah Baumbach