This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Noah Baumbach
I love THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, but I don’t love Noah Baumbach. Having ripped through his filmography as a young film school hopeful in 2012, in terms of someone who fashions themselves as a writer in any capacity, Baumbach is excellent material to cut your teeth on. The energy and movement he imbues into every spoken word is palpable, but upon revisiting his old films and keeping up with the new ones, the cyclical, nigh-obsessive retreads of the same characters and themes begin to rear their heads. He’s certainly consistent, but there’s only so much white, middle-class existential malaise you can stomach after a while, and he’s not doing himself any favors by failing to pair his writing idiosyncrasies with any sort of concurrent visual flair. That being said, a Netflix-exclusive Baumbach interested me; somewhere between Wes Anderson and Joe Swanberg, Baumbach felt like the ideal candidate for the streaming service. Thankfully, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) is a success; perhaps not the smash one many are claiming, but an easy successor to THE SQUID AND THE WHALE’s throne.
Involving family, failure, and reconciling with generational divides, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES sees Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) working through familial anxieties and tensions at the potential deathbed of their father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman). It’s not unfamiliar turf for Baumbach, as the aforementioned SQUID AND THE WHALE treads over similar territory of deep-seated familial anxieties, but this feels infinitely less precious than many of his previous films considering the advanced age of the characters he’s working with. These are no longer ennui-ridden young adults coming to terms with the harsh unfair difficulties of life, but grown adults who have already gone through and survived the same. Everyone can be considered a failure on a personal or professional level (often both), and THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES is propelled forward by throwing everyone together with the ghosts of their past. Mature is an easy descriptor to use, but an appropriate one, considering everyone’s own realizations of the fact that what’s best for you is rarely best for anyone else.
But NOTHING’s as good for anybody as cargo shorts are for Adam Sandler
But fear not, that’s not to say that THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES is dour or downtrodden, far from it. In fact, this is easily Baumbach’s most explicitly comedic film, with some of his favored character quirks that get used for “comedy” tampered out for the sake of honest-to-goodness humorous writing. Harold is the most consistent practitioner, and anyone who is experiencing the stubborn and laser-focused attention of an aging parent will find themselves unable to restrain chuckles as he largely ignores the movements of the world around him for what’s right in front of him. Just try to keep a smile off your face during the standout scene of the film, wherein Matthew attempts to simply meet his father for lunch in the city, to disastrous results. And yes, Adam Sandler also gets his time in the sun, with an explosive opening scene that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film.
But here’s the thing: I find the commentary on Sandler’s performance to be the least interesting buzz surrounding this film. We already know he’s a good dramatic actor, even a great one; PUNCH DRUNK LOVE has been stunning audiences for 15 years now, and the deep-divers will know that Sandler is easily the best part of the woebegotten Reitman failure MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN. In fact, it’s more of a point in the favor of Baumbach’s vision that most of the work here is done to diminish Sandler’s star power. What’s really impressive is a late-career, powderkeg performance from Hoffman, who’s been virtually off-grid for 10 years now. Absolutely enthralling to watch here, Hoffman establishes Harold as one of the most frustratingly lovable characters committed to screen in recent memory. In addition, Emma Thompson knocks it out of the park as Harold’s current wife Maureen, nailing the slurred goofiness of her alcoholic character as well as the resentment and alienation she feels at never being a vital part of the clan. While Ben Stiller comes across as returning to a comfort zone, exhibiting the same range he has in previous Baumbach films, the only one who feels underutilized as both a character and performer is Elizabeth Marvel. Literally and metaphorically overlooked by her family, you’ll want to see much more of her than the highlighted extended monologue the film allows, as she delivers a deadpan pessimism that perfectly offsets her more volatile brothers.
But unfortunately, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES doesn’t promise any updates to Baumbach’s long career of tepid visual presentation. There’s just no style here to speak of, and while the cinematography from AMERICAN HONEY’s Robbie Ryan is assured, it also feels truncated, its desire to hustle and flow held back at the gates by dialogue-heavy scenes occurring in close-up. But the film doesn’t get an entirely free pass on substance either; like it or not, everyone does explicitly ask questions regarding each other’s motivations and feelings, and there are some moments of sappy sentimentality and openness that can end up feeling cloying rather than evocative. Topped off with a format of segmenting its stories through the use of title cards (not as obnoxious as you’d think, but still forgettable at best) and a subplot involving Danny’s loneliness being exacerbated by his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), going to film school that’s introduced and hastily abandoned, there’s always the sneaking suspicion waiting just around the corner that if this were another low-flying flick featuring Greta Gerwig and other typical Baumbach conspirators, we may not be paying attention. Never mind the fact that including anything involving a character attending film school is stomach-churning in its laziness and precociousness, but it’s already such an ultimately insignificant part of the narrative that it’s not a show-stopper.
But whether it’s the buzzworthy presence of the Sandman himself, the shift to more layered and complex issues of family instead of a white person who’s kind of sad, or the fact that maybe it’s just a great script with great actors (the most likely), THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES sticks the landing. This is by far the best Netflix original film since BEASTS OF NO NATION, with virtually no contest, and it’s clear Awards season appeal is sure to shake up the industry’s notions of what kind of film offered in what kind of manner can receive recognition. Sandler is sure to get nominated for a slew of acting awards on smaller circuits, and while the Academy probably isn’t ready to put him up for Best Actor, Dustin Hoffman’s performance also deserves to get some gold and would be a much safer selection. In any case, with the vast majority of Netflix’s content being unadulterated trash, you’d do very well for yourself to take this one for a spin.