“Maybe he’s undiscovered for a reason,” says Matt (Ben Stiller) about his sculptor father Harold. But for his half-brother Danny taking away the myth of their dad’s undiscovered greatness will destroy their excuses for Harold’s terrible parenting and four marriages: “if he isn’t a great artist that means he was just a prick.”
This is a comedy of no manners, as sculptor Harold is rude about pretty much anyone more successful than he. And though it’s in some ways a typical New York tale, its notes on families and our roles within them are so universal it could be set anywhere, just with slightly different (and probably less funny) jokes.
My parents have always been old so I understand those growing fears over loss of autonomy and status, and how hard it is to be nice back. Death by a thousand slights, paid forward from other slights delivered to them, would sum up many parent to child relationships.
But The Meyerowitz Stories is also about who owns what, how you share out in a family, objects and positions and also memories. How are our stories filtered and are they even true?
Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor who never quite reached the artistically and financially successful heights of his friends and contemporaries, is old and becoming infirm, but his mind is still sharp enough to point out the failings of those other, more successful artists, and that he has met Sigourney Weaver. He’s about to have a career retrospective of his sculptures at a college, while his old friend is getting one at MoMA.
Harold’s hopefully final wife is Maureen (Emma Thompson, hilarious and moving as that perpetual outsider, the stepmom), a life-threatening cook and raging hippie. She also likes to drop her own successes into the conversation, with one man described rather brilliantly as “babyfaced but sinewy, like an old lover of mine, Willem Dafoe”.
Harold and Maureen are sort of having their own retrospective, as they sell the family house and also the artwork. Danny (Adam Sandler) in particular is horrified despite only having lived there for a year as a teenager; it was wealth manager Matt’s childhood home but he understands unsuccessful artists cannot live on undercooked shark and overcooked snark alone.
Maureen encourages the siblings to go through old boxes for things they want to keep, though who owns what is up for good-natured debate.
It never occurs to Harold that he might not be as good an artist as he thinks. Likewise he never doubts, or seems to even think about, his abilities as a father, or as a husband.
He has three children and two grandchildren, but only one is really using any artistic ability they have inherited: Danny is a househusband who only enjoys making music when composing ditties at the piano for his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). She is studying film and in her spare time makes short movies that become increasing naked as she develops as an interesting filmmaker. Danny’s sister Jean seems to have subsumed her own artistic wants into being that child who is always on call. And Matt (Danny and Jean’s half-brother) makes a tonne of money as a wealth manager.
It’s true that having several children doesn’t mean responsibility for aged parents is shared out. Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) has borne the brunt in the Meyerowitz family, because she’s a nice person and that’s what nice people do, as she admits. Especially nice middle-aged daughters I would add. I’m not that nice though, I would also add.
Like many families each child thinks another was the golden boy or girl: Matt is convinced that his business skills have little value in his father’s mind, yet Harold is particularly scathing about the sacrifices Danny has made for his family: “have you thought about getting a job?… You’ve essentially never worked in your life”. And like many families when they get together, over-40s siblings fall back into old patterns of behaviours and start acting like teenagers again.
Meanwhile Harold is mostly oblivious to the emotional mayhem he has caused over the years, so it’s ironic that when he falls dangerously ill he is again oblivious, this time through no fault of his own, as his children finally sort out out their shifting allegiances between and against each other. (This involves Danny and Matt gleefully smashing up the car of someone who they discover hurt their sister, then rolling around on the ground themselves as years of fraternal anger spill out.)
The conversations within the Meyerowitz family are so perfectly timed that they appear entirely natural and unscripted, dinner table banter any large family will recognise. That perfect timing must surely have been rehearsed to death though, so brilliantly do those barbs and responses fit together. As each character rejoins the family (the film is split into different people’s stories), the dynamic changes slightly, but the wordplay and emotional weight behind every rejoinder is almost always pitch-perfect.
Hoffman’s portrayal of Harold, bitching about his lack of success then later on genuinely warmly embracing more successful artistic friends, makes perfect, poignant sense. Sandler is revelatory in a touching role as a jobless shouter (don’t ever park in his space, its simply not worth it) who seems oblivious to his own successful parenting, while he’s seen as anything but successful by his father. Stiller is brilliant as a man focussing on the practicalities that the family needs even though practicalities hold little value for them.
Maureen, though, gets it right. Like nearly every stepmom she will always be the outsider, but with that comes more clarity of vision than most in the family will ever get to enjoy: “you have your idea of yourself and you wanna hold onto that” she says.
There isn’t a perfect ending to the Meyerowitz Stories, but then in most big families a perfect ending would be finding out that unbeknown to you, for every rude parental comment about your failures thrown in your direction, they secretly told some random stranger how proud they are of you and your successes.