Netflix’s second movie in competition for the prestigious Palme d’Or is The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which again sees writer/director Noah Baumbach return to his favourite milieu of family misfortunes, though this time with the humour and warmth a little higher in the mix.
Dustin Hoffman is in great form as Harold Meyerowitz, ex-professor, faintly recognised sculptor and testy, self-obsessed father of three kids: LA-based Matthew (Ben Stiller) and New York-based Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). Matthew is a successful accountant who’s started his own firm. Jean and Danny, meanwhile, enjoy none of their half-brother’s financial success, with the former working for Xerox and the latter never having done a day’s graft in his life, though he has been an attentive father to the college-bound Eliza (Grace Van Patten).
Communication in this dysfunctional Jewish family is intermittent at best, its parties separated by distance both geographical and emotional. But they must share the same space when first they come together to put on a retrospective of Harold’s work, and then to watch over him when his health worsens. Now, they realise, is perhaps their last chance to bury long-held resentments and to hastily build bridges, though, being a Baumbach film, there is little easy (queasy?) sentiment on display and the characters’ petty behaviours don’t evaporate but rather exaggerate given the sombre situation.
There is plenty of Baumbach’s previous movies in the wittily written dynamics, and shades of Woody Allen’s relationship dramedies and Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, too. Baumbach’s creations are always literary and erudite, but not at the expense of emotion; The Meyerowitz Stories, he says, is based on elements of his own family and those of close friends, and the bookish scenarios are made pleasingly dog-eared by the glorious messiness of real life.
Hoffmann, smothered by a dense beard and impenetrable narcissism, would surely be in line for his eighth Oscar nomination were this not a Netflix movie (it will be eligible given it’s getting a small day-and-date theatrical release, but it’s hard to see the Academy embracing the perceived enemy), while Stiller accesses raw emotions he’s previously only hinted at. The actresses, meanwhile – Marvel, Patten and Emma Thompson as Harold’s colourful fourth wife and a truly terrible gourmet cook – make the most of satellite roles.
But the real revelation here is Sandler, or at least he will be to those who choose to forget just how likeable he is in many of his early and mid-career comedies, and just how good he is in Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People. The signature temper tantrums, played for uneasy laughs, are still (too much) in evidence, but many of his recognisable mannerisms and speech patterns are jettisoned as he fully inhabits a man weighted by a surplus of sorrow and a deficit of self-confidence.
How we measure success is one of the themes of this movie, with personal and professional worth in constant contest. But such sober musings are leavened by a barrage of amusingly fractious interactions, and some memorable sight gags including Hoffman doing the best run in the movies since George Clooney skedaddle-shuffled in his flip-flops in The Descendants.
A Baumbach movie to both delight his admirers and widen his audience, The Meyerowitz Stories is his best since The Squid and the Whale.