By my count, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is Noah Baumbach’s tenth feature. Something about that makes it howl a little louder than you’d expect. Baumbach’s filmography has grappled with the loneliness of adolescence, the anxiety of living in the shadows of elders, and the unbecoming desperation of being an unsuccessful artist. He also happens to have a cinephile’s fascination for the work of Brian De Palma. All these components encircle and animate The Meyerowitz Stories in what frequently reads as an exercise of self-flagellation, a self-aware critique of the filmmaker’s robust filmography that covers his past themes and formal preoccupations.
Baumbach’s literary tendencies inform the formal aspects of The Meyerowitz Stories, where he adopts a series of title cards that alternate from one narrative to the next. Each story tends to linger, maneuvering from one vignette to the next with an ellipses rather than a period. This device is vital in encapsulating Baumbach’s preoccupations with transitions and his characters’ inability to move on. Consider the opening segment involving Danny (Adam Sandler) and his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). Danny, recently divorced, is coping with his daughter’s impending departure to college. The two gather with Danny’s family, which includes his curmudgeon father Harold (Dustin Hoffman), frumpy sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and stepmother Maureen (Emma Thompson). The dynamic is a complicated one, in what’s typically played for laughs, but suggests an underlying accumulation of grief.
This becomes more clear with the introduction of Matthew (Ben Stiller), a successful business manager whose past ambitions of being an artist have instead led him to work for them. He’s largely disconnected from the Meyerowitz clan, regarding his stepsiblings and father with disinterest; he medicates himself before meeting with his father and their brief encounter is a complete disaster. Meanwhile, his relationship with Danny and Jean is strained at best, particularly when cast against the approval of Harold. What we gather from Matthew’s arrival is a kind of awareness of the cumulative defects shared by every Meyerowitz: a perpetual yearning for validation and approval that prevents them from finding happiness in themselves, let alone each other.
Baumbach’s earlier films would have been more glib and unsentimental about these sort of characters, but in The Meyerowitz Stories the softness of his later works suggest a greater communal sense of belonging. Part of this softness, ironically, comes from the harshness of his editing patterns. For comic effect, editor Jennifer Lame and Baumbach will cut scenes well before their end, amplifying a punch line by simply leaving a character hanging. Yet later into the film, we see Lame and Baumbach rely on carefully deployed fadeouts as a means of conveying the relative contentment that each character embraces. If anything, this pattern reflects the Brian De Palma/Paul Hirsch collaborations of the late 70s and early 80s, where films like Blow Out and particularly Carrie amplified tension through rapid, startling cuts while lulling you into false sense of security with fadeout cuts. Here, Baumbach and Lame utilize the technique for a different though nevertheless effective end. Some have suggested that Baumbach’s warmth has stemmed from his publicized relationship with Greta Gerwig, particularly given that she’s starred in a number of his films following Margot at the Wedding. But it’s really been since Jennifer Lame has been cutting his films have, at least formally, displayed a distinct humanist quality.
Like most great auteurs, Baumbach recycles his past themes and preoccupations with enough variance to unearth something dynamic thematically or artistically. His great feat here may perhaps be the sheer magnitude of movies stars he corrals in this effort, along with their collective performances. The Adam Sandler performance is as good as you’ve heard, though it’s Dustin Hoffman’s performance that rings most true in what’s genuinely the best thing the actor has done in over two decades. Which, in itself, to think that Adam Sandler and Dustin Hoffman would star in a Noah Baumbach film is some kind of cosmic miracle given the modesty of films like Kicking and Screaming or The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach’s made it. Something tells me that he’s still not entirely satisfied with it all, though. But maybe he’s getting better at coping.