Baumbach: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
Noah Baumbach’s first film for Netflix has a loose, ambient, improvised quality that brings it closer than The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding than anything he’s done since. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also his first release since those two films, bar one, not to feature partner and collaborator Greta Gerwig, who has starred in every other film that he has directed this decade. Presumably, that’s partly because Gerwig’s work on Lady Bird made her unavailable, but her absence here feels more than a matter of necessity as well, since this is possibly the first film in Baumbach’s canon in which he has finally embraced, or at least accepted, middle age as his aesthetic lens, as well as conceding, along the way, that his films may have always been somewhat middle aged in spirit. In his more recent films, Gerwig often formed a point of mediation between this middle-aged sensibility and the precocity of his younger films, but with his muse now directing her own coming-of-age story, and claiming the early 2000s – the period at which Baumbach’s precocity started to lose its initial edge and surprise – as her own youthful milieu, it’s hard to think how she could ever fulfil that role within his own filmograpy in quite the same way any more. Even in Mistress America she felt considerably more aligned with middle age than youth, despite her age, and now with her entirely absent from his mise-en-scenes it feels as if Baumbach has no real choice but to return to the more melancholy demeanor of his mid-2000s output.
That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a Greta Gerwig surrogate at the heart of this novelistic drama. But her presence here is very different – or perhaps just less convincing – than Gerwig’s role in Baumbach’s earlier films, partly because of the family structure that Baumbach erects around her. At the heart of it is Harold Meyerowitz, played by Dustin Hoffman, an aging sculptor who lives on Manhattan, taught at Bard College for the majority of his career, and never quite cracked the top echelon of the New York art world, even if he moved in the same circles as many of its high flyers throughout the 1970s and 1980s. While Harold has had multiple marriages, but he’s currently living in his family home with Maureen, his fourth wife, played by Emma Thompson, where he’s trying to plan – or get others to plan – the career retrospective that will restore him to the critical acclaim he deserves. Meanwhile his son, Danny, played by Adam Sandler, has moved back in after separating from his wife, along with his own daughter Eliza, played by Grace Van Patten, who is about to enroll in Bard as a film major. Also in the picture is Harold’s daughter and Danny’s sister Jean, played by Elizabeth Marvel, who lives in Rochester but spends a great deal of time in the city. Finally, there’s Matthew, played by Ben Stiller, half-brother to Danny and Jean, who lives in Los Angeles, and is estranged from Harold, but returns to the East Coast after Harold sustains a rough head injury and is hospitalised halfway through the film.
As the title of the film might suggest, that plays out in a fairly novelistic fashion, with Baumbach devoting “chapters” to Danny, Matthew, the three siblings as a unit and then, finally and briefly, Jean. While the plot proceeds chronologically, it does also focus on one sibling at a time, emphasising their fractured relation to one another even in the midst of their intimate moments, and imbuing the film as a whole with an odd kind of rhythm that often feels proto-serialised, or as if it could easily spawn a serial continuation. In many ways, the first section, which focuses on Danny, is the most striking, although that may also simply be because this is where the aesthetic and approach of the film as a whole announces itself, since from the very beginning it’s clear that The Meyerowitz Stories is suffused with a sense of lateness, and middle age, that cuts against the precocity that has always been integral to Baumbach’s signature. In some ways, While We’re Young was the last bastion of that precocity, if only by virtue of the way in which it turned a bemused spotlight on the next generation of hipster precocity, and tried to both fathom and lambast it in the same breath.
By contrast, the three siblings here – and especially Danny – are now settling into older roles, slowing down in pace, and coming to terms with everything belated in their lives, even if the past also feels more immediate than ever as they start to fall into their parents’ footsteps. From the opening scene, in which Danny tries, repeatedly, to secure a reverse parallel park in Manhattan, the film beautifully captures each character coming to terms with a new ungainliness, awkwardness and even incipient frailty around their bodily interactions with the world, whether in the form of Danny’s escalating limp, Matthew’s increasing exhaustion, or Jean’s sluggish, low modality body language. In fact, I can’t think of a recent film I’ve seen that so deftly captures characters starting to glimpse old age as a distant bodily horizon of middle age, which is perhaps why this feels considerably less stilted than many of Baumbach’s recent films, as if he’s finally settled into a groove and demographic more suited to where he is in life at the cusp of his fifties. Where his recent films have been about people on the cusp of middle age giving advice to a younger generation, here we’re presented with people on the other side of middle age steeling themselves for being the next “older” generation, as well as trying to come to terms with the ultimate lack of advice or guidance that they received from the generation before them.
While part of Baumbach’s precocity has always come from his sense of creating a “minor” cinema, The Meyerowitz Stories therefore feels much smaller – authentically smaller – than many of his recent efforts. The small scale of Netflix works well here too, conjuring up a vision of New York that is similarly modest, and even self-effacing, for all that it might draw upon quite a grand and nostalgically cinematic version of the city as well. While the opening is set in New York, and suffused with New York, this is somehow not a “New York movie” either, as much as it might sometimes want to be, with the action moving away from New York entirely in the later part of the film, albeit without settling anywhere quite emphatic or distinctive enough to make New York’s absence feel especially conspicuous either. For the most part, the last two acts of the film take place in the nondescript outer suburbs and boroughs of Rochester, while the next iteration of New York is represented by the interracial gay couple who make a bid for the house, furniture and – perhaps most critically – Harold’s art collection, which they plan to sell to a suite of retirement homes in order to claim it as a tax writeoff. It’s a transition that forms the locus for a whole lot of little ways in which the Meyerowitz saga is presented as being somehow more “classical” than the black and queer characters who hover around the fringes of the narrative – characters once relegated to support and service roles, but whose position in the cinematic economy envisaged by the film seems to have shifted in the years since Harold’s generation was king.
With those characters – or figures – perpetually challenging the hegemony of the film and its narrative, even the most emphatically “New York” moments feel as if they’re happening in the background, or in the past, although not quite far enough in the background or in the past to be relegated to a splendid nostalgic distance or isolation either. We’re not dealing, then, with a self-consciously “minor” New York in the manner of, say, Alex Ross Perry, partly because Harold absorbs and cannibalises any residual nostalgia the film might have enjoyed, making Gene Hackman’s depiction of Royal Tenenbaum seem positively altruistic by comparison. As we get to know Harold more, it’s clear that nostalgia – for a better art market, for better artists, for critics who might have been capable of understanding him – is a defence mechanism he’s used against the world all his life, making it impossible for the film to ever exhibit nostalgia for the world he recalls, or for his generation, in any straightforward way. The more settled and lived-in his house feels, the more disposable it seems, with even the most cluttered and “homely” spaces coming off as a little too light, and a little too empty, as if they could be packed up and cleaned away at a moment’s notice. Yet neither Harold nor his family feel quite at home on the street either, with Baumbach perpetually setting them against asymmetrical, looming space that gives the impression of being stranded, cast adrift, jettisoned in a cityscape they no longer command.
One quite marked continuity with While We’re Young is Baumbach’s decision to cut between these domestic spaces and more public exhibition spaces, which here take the form of the Museum of Modern Art, where Harold and Danny attend the retrospective of one of Harold’s peers and competitors. Yet where the sequence at Lincoln Center occurred towards the end of While We’re Young, this sequence at MoMA occurs about a third of the way into The Meyerowitz Stories, where it acts as more of a fulcrum between the film’s different stories and spaces. On the one hand, the juxtaposition makes Harold’s own domestic spaces feel as provisional and makeshift as the exhibition spaces at MoMA, but it also, conversely, turns MoMA itself into the locus of a generationally-identified New York artistic community, and a period space and fixture in itself, even or especially as its iconic white cube exhibition design seems to forestall or preclude datedness. It’s in these scenes that Harold’s art really starts to feel like a cipher for a certain kind of heroic, brutal, phallic, auteurist, masculinist artistry that thrived in the 70s, and that found its purest and most unabashed expression in precisely the kind of abstract sculpture that he promulgated. While Baumbach may not have been a part of this generation, he’s certainly indebted to it, as evinced in his recent documentary about Brian de Palma – and the Meyerowitz children are all indebted to and haunted by it as well, with Matthew bitterly telling Harold, towards the end, that “I don’t take after you, none of us do – you had to be the only artist in the family.”
What ensues, then, is probably the last gasp of a certain kind of “New York Story” – the stories commemorated in Coppola, Scorsese and Allen’s anthology of short films of the same name; three films that were all, in their own way, about the heroic masculine labour of being an artist working in New York, the heroic masculinity labour of making art about New York. By definition, that’s a fairly masculinist mode, so it’s perhaps not surprising that, while Danny and Matthew receive whole “chapters” to themselves here, Jean’s “story” amounts to a confession of abuse and not that much more (“You guys will never understand what it’s like to be me in this family,”), resulting in a discomfortingly “comic” sequence in which her brothers attempt to defend her honour some thirty years on. The characterisation of Danny’s daughter is similarly unconcinving, partly because she’s clearly meant to be Gerwig’s surrogate in the film – an experimental film maker who has enrolled at Bard just after Harold has retired as lecturer, and whose “feminist” films seem to offer some kind of hope that her grandfather’s artistic talent has skipped a generation and allowed her to pursue her own aesthetic dreams without the baggage of her father, aunt and uncle. Personally, I found this the weakest part of the film, partly because of the bizarre caricature of what feminist or experimental film making entails, but partly because of the burden placed upon Eliza to resolve the masculine sins of the past. Put simply, it often feels as if women are presented as either neurotics, daughters or muses here, with not a lot in between, which is perhaps why the father-son stuff that it all contours get a bit boring after a while, both in terms of Danny’s role as father and Harold’s role as father. By the end, the pathos is a bit unconvincing, somehow, and the film seems to know it, too, as Baumbach offers a two-pronged ending that seems designed to disavow this pathos at the last minute.
In the first of these, Matthew thanks Harold for an artistic collaboration between them as father and son that never really happened, only for Harold to choose this exact moment to reveal that it never happened, despite having trumpeted it as their formative bonding moment to anyone who will listen for years. In the second, Danny decides to leave Harold to spent time with Matthew in Los Angeles, resulting in a strangely deflated and atonal montage sequence that forms the last few moments of the film. In both cases, it’s hard not to feel that the narratives of hyperbolic paternal charisma – of fathers, artists, gangsters, politicians, cops – that drove this kind of New York cinema has reached a kind of exhaustion, not least because Harold’s character is so incessantly and tediously monotone in his quirks, quips and quibbles. Similarly, it’s hard not to feel that Harold’s “gravitas” eventually amounts to a selfish, untalented and – worst of all – boring outlook on the world, imbuing the last few sequences in the film with a sense of drabness, dourness and even irrelevance that’s quite a brave and startling register for a filmmaker whose precocity, and sense of being a generational spokesman, has always been such a integral part of his work. Not unlike Michael Bay’s 13 Hours (although in a very different register), there’s a sense, here, of a director taking stock of his legacy and signature, and what has been at stake in his artistic career and outlook, before possibly moving on to a new, later development in his practice.
That’s not to say, of course, that The Meyerowitz Stories still doesn’t have wonderful moments, even in its later stages. I’ve always been a big fan of Sandler’s most inane roles – Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, Mr. Deeds – but this film still makes you wonder why he doesn’t do these kinds of dramatic roles more often either, since the awkwardness, ungainliness and ugliness that drives his comedy works brilliantly when he’s permitted and encouraged to be as vulnerable as he is here. Similarly, Stiller is terrific in these earnest, yearning, melancholy roles, which have become quite pronounced over the last decade, as he’s migrated from the face of Gen X at its most irreverent to Gen X at its most homeless, a transition I find all the more compelling for the continuities it suggests between these two apparently incommensurate parts of his filmography. As Jean observes to Danny and Matthew, “you were always both such middle-aged men in the making,” and the way that Stiller’s recent films acknowledge that – rather than purporting to represent some massive shift or turn in a more “serious” or “dramatic” direction – is part of what makes them so stunning, just as the continuity with the version of Sandler that we all know so well is what makes his performance of Danny so remarkable here, and one of the very best of his career.
Inevitably, Marvel doesn’t get as much of a chance as Stiller and Sandler to shine, although she’s just as good. Still, she’s an integral part of the film, with the best sequences tending to involve some combination of the siblings and Harold reclining on shared habits and shared language. During these sequences, in which neither angst nor affection is especially foregrounded, Baumbach strikes a beautiful balance between montage and regular pacing, encapsulating the ways in which even the most incidental contact between family members can invoke a life’s rhythm and encounters, but also the way in which even the most staid and fossilised of familial rapports can feel strangely emergent when just one piece of the picture is shifted or taken away. That shift is clearest in three key moments in the film – when Danny moves in with Harold at the beginning, when Harold is hospitalised halfway through, and when Harold’s show is set up at Bard – and in each case Baumbach shows what a master of ambience and atmosphere he can be when he pulls back from his trademark wordiness, as the characters find themselves wandering, ambling and looping back around the spaces they’re meant to be occupying, or that they once occupied. For obvious reasons, that’s especially pronounced during the hospital sequences, where Danny, Matthew and Jean spend most of their waking hours roaming around the corridors, carpark and woods outside, dealing with the last days and weeks of pallitative caregiving in a circuitous and peripatetic manner, only for Harold to somehow, unexpectedly, pull through.
Yet in many ways it’s the opening sequence, between Danny and Harold, where this tendency is most beautifully refined, as Baumbach splits the difference between montage and non-montage to create a resonant emotional environment in which the most distant and long-term facets of the relationship are somehow fused with the most immediate and fleeting shared experiences. In the best possible way, this opening recalls Woody Allen’s films of the late 70s and mid 80s, especially Hannah and Her Sisters, but it also – more urgently – recalls the odd temporality of Mistress America, and its more experimental, outlier presence in Baumbach’s canon. There, the odd compressions and distortions of time translated the interpersonal dynamics of social media onto a “naturalistic” cinematic narrative, and a similar thing often occurs here, except that what we’re presented with now are the characters left behind by that new digital economy, characters still stranded in a cinematic temporality and narrative structure whose realism has been surpassed and outdated by the world around them. Left behind, but never abandoned or disadvantaged enough to feel like splendid marginalia either, the Meyerowitzes are perhaps the ultimate Netflix family, a cinematic niche in a post-cinematic world whose story may be small, but whose smallness is of its time, even or especially as this may be the last time it can be told.
Great performances all around, especially from Sandler. Let’s hope he keeps up the good pace. Nice review.
I agree – and thanks!