“Family isn’t a word, it’s a sentence,” stated Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. In Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), family is more an anthology: a series of short stories we tell ourselves in a way that is partial and ‘selected’.
It’s a hilarious take on the well-worn trope of the dysfunctional American family, but at the same time manages to sympathetically engage with all sides. Danny (Adam Sandler, returning to comedy after a long hiatus) is in the process of a divorce. His daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) is off to college to study film and Danny is moving in temporarily with his dad Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), an ageing sculptor who coincidentally used to teach at Eliza’s new college.
Meyerowitz has a twinkly Father Christmas-ness about him, but his perfectly articulated editorialising those around him and his own life of his own life places him as the talented genius who was misunderstood and underrated. His self-deception is only matched by his talent for passive-aggressively controlling his family. His current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) is a constantly relapsing alcoholic who under-cooks shark and trades in marvellous affectations such as calling Harold ‘the dad’. Meanwhile, successful businessman and favoured younger son Matt (Ben Stiller – see Sandler comment) returns with his own resentments and relationship problems.
The third and least visible of the half-siblings Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) watches on with a dry wit and some of her own hidden issues. As they often will, health issues arrive and the half-siblings find themselves for the first time in their lives having to work together and confront their relationships. So far, so The Corrections. But Baumbach writes his dialogue with a sharp pencil and the film bursts with non-sequiturs, put downs and hilarious lines.
The ensemble performances rise to the calibre of the writing. To see Sandler and Stiller in a series of both comic and moving scenes is to enter a parallel universe. Hoffman’s Meyerowitz is a triumph, at once an apparently harmless old man – an aged version of the Jeff Daniels character in The Squid and the Whale – insulated against the world by a sense of his own self-importance and partly a monster, selfish and needy and unable to see the damage he has done to his children. “He has to be great artist,” Danny says as the perfect summation. “Otherwise he’s just a prick.” There are many moments of genuine hilarity.
From the scenes of the grown children dealing with the hospital – “This is our first hospital,” Jean tells the doctor – to Eliza’s “not un-pornographic” student films which the family watch agape, the film is a lot of fun and largely avoids the quirk-overdose that dragged Frances Ha and Mistress America down. It is also surprisingly moving as we watch each member of the family seek to crawl out from under what Philip Larkin called our “wrong beginnings”. The Meyerowitz Stories is an artfully funny and keenly sympathetic piece of work, which will lead the reader/viewer to hope that as difficult as families are the stories will still go on.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty