[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]hroughout his two-decade career as a director, Noah Baumbach has repeatedly returned to a variety of themes – sibling rivalry, divorce, personal and professional jealousy, the struggles of tortured artists, and long-simmering resentment of parents by adult children.
Baumbach’s new film, The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected, which debuted last week on Netflix and in selected theaters, brings all of those themes together. They represent something of a summation of the director’s career up to this point, touching on most of the subjects and themes Baumbach has been dealing with in his work for more than 20 years.
Noah Baumbach’s filmmaking career began in 1995 with Kicking and Screaming, a very ‘90s indie about a group of friends (including Eric Stoltz and Chris Eigeman) living aimlessly after college. The underrated Mr. Jealousy followed two years later, featuring a tour de force performance by Stoltz as a guy obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, to the point where he infiltrates the therapy group of her new boyfriend (Eigeman again.)
…The Meyerowitz Stories is Baumbach’s tenth film, something that feels like a career capstone for a director who, at 48, seems far from done.
An eight-year break from directing ended with 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s best-received film, in which he re-enacted the divorce of his parents (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney.) In 2007 came Margot at the Wedding, with Nicole Kidman and Baumbach’s then-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh as warring siblings, in a film shot on off-putting, cruddy digital video. That particularly cynical period in the director’s career concluded with Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller as a toxic jerk.
At some point Baumbach split from Leigh and took up with Greenberg co-star Greta Gerwig, who subsequently became the focal point of the next phase of his career, most notably 2012’s glorious Frances Ha. Gerwig wasn’t in Baumbach’s 2014 film While We’re Young, but that movie’s sneering indictment of the millennial generation was seen by some as Baumbach’s reaction to the experience of dating a millennial. He worked with Gerwig again in 2015’s Mistress America, with her future step-sibling Lola Kirke as a young undergrad with literary aspirations.
Following last year’s documentary about Brian DePalma, The Meyerowitz Stories is Baumbach’s tenth film, something that feels like a career capstone for a director who, at 48, seems far from done. Baumbach co-wrote a couple of films with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and Meyerowitz is Baumbach’s The Royal Tenenbaums; an epic work that’s primarily about the havoc brought upon a New York-based family of adult children (one of them played by Ben Stiller) by their selfish, withholding father.
Tenth time’s the charm
The Meyerowitz Stories, now streaming on Netflix and showing in a few theaters after a successful festival run, also may very well be Baumbach’s most complete work. And that’s thanks to a smart script, a lived-in New York City setting, and a half-dozen superlative performances, led by what may very well be a career-best turn from Adam Sandler.
…even if no one says a word about Jewish culture, cuisine or theology. It’s just the New York setting, the casting of the lead actors, and the overwhelming air of neuroticism.
Yes, Meyerowitz is another New York story about the semi-estranged members of a dysfunctional family, with everyone’s lives littered by various past divorces. It’s also one of those movies that has ‘Jewishness’ absolutely written all over it, even if no one says a word about Jewish culture, cuisine or theology. It’s just the New York setting, the casting of the lead actors, and the overwhelming air of neuroticism.
Dustin Hoffman plays the family patriarch, a retired professor and second-tier sculptor whose career never quite took off the way he had hoped. Married to wife #4 (hippie-dippie alcoholic Emma Thompson), he has three children: Danny (Sandler), a recently divorced dad who’s never worked in his life and has a college-student daughter (Grace Van Patten), Adam (Stiller), a hotshot entertainment industry money guy, and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who’s obviously hiding a big secret (Gerwig, perhaps busy at the time with her acclaimed directorial debut Lady Bird, is not in the film).
Sandler does this, about once a decade: He takes a break from his ever-more -witless comedies to take on a dramatic role for a top director, and just knocks it out of the park. He did it in Punch Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson) and Spanglish (James L. Brooks). Men, Women and Children (for Jason Reitman) was an attempt, but in that film he toned it down so far that he was practically catatonic. Here, though, he’s affecting as a 50-something guy with a lifetime of regret.
Sandler does this, about once a decade: He takes a break from his ever-more -witless comedies to take on a dramatic role for a top director, and just knocks it out of the park.
Stiller, just last month, was heartbreaking in Mike White’s Brad’s Status, as a middle-aged guy jealous of his college friends’ success; in Meyerowitz, he’s flipped that role, playing a guy with a lot in common with those friends: A rich, well-dressed slickster who’s nevertheless profoundly damaged. The true revelation, though, is Marvel (from House of Cards), as a highly unconventional character whose arc has a great payoff.
Thompson, almost unrecognizable, gives her best performance in years, while Van Patten is a highlight, especially the hilarious, sexual, avant garde short films she makes in her freshman year film class.
Aside from the assured performances, the first-rate dialogue and the fine New York setting, the skill of The Meyerowitz Stories is that Baumbach returns to so many themes that he has dealt with before, without seeming to repeat himself or belabor past points.
Noah Baumbach’s films over the years have run the gamut from very good to very bad, very funny to very sad, and filmed both expensively and cheaply. The Meyerowitz Stories, thanks to the way it brings it all together, is his most assured, and best, work.