“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.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s script is funny and fabulous: the conversations within the Meyerowitz family an A+ version of the dinner table banter any large family will recognise, barbs and responses flying back and forth like a verbal tennis match. 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.
It’s a must-watch for adult children, particularly from big families; even if the excellent performances and brittle jokes pass you by, at the very least you’ll no longer feel alone as you stomp around, reverting to your 15 year old self and wanting to shriek “it’s not fair!” at your big sister.
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 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.
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 Danny and his daughter are using any inherited artistic talents. He’s is a househusband who only enjoys making music when composing ditties at the piano for his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). She’s studying film and in her spare time makes short movies that become increasing naked as she develops as a filmmaker.
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, 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.
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. Stiller is excellent as the family’s unappreciated moneymaker, focussing on practicalities even though practicalities hold little value for them.
But the real standout is Sandler, wonderfully good 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.
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.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected) is available on Netflix.
Watch the trailer for The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected):