Friday, November 17, 2017

Living with Regret: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson in Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

In the last few years, beginning with Frances Ha in 2012, writer-director Noah Baumbach’s comedies have felt like latter-day adaptations of the sensibility I always associated with Paul Mazursky’s in the 1970s and 80s: satirical yet compassionate, hip yet skeptical, partly hopeful and partly rueful. And like Mazursky, he’s become the master of the mixed tone. Frances Ha, whose hapless heroine (played by Greta Gerwig) goes to Paris for a weekend and doesn’t know what to do once she arrives, is hilarious and poignant in equal measure; she evokes our exasperation but also our protectiveness. The paralyzed documentary filmmaker Ben Stiller portrays in While We’re Young (2015) can’t separate out his bid for artistic independence from his own ego, and he falls into one trap after another of his own making, but his efforts, increasingly desperate, to stay on his own wavelength – and to prevent himself from turning into a middle-aged cliché – are touching somehow. As with Mazursky, it’s not necessarily that you recognize these characters from your own life; both men work in very distinct, almost rarefied, narrative realms. It’s that you can see that Baumbach recognizes them – that they represent parts of himself, and his willingness to identify with him even when they’re being ridiculous is the mark of a great humanistic spirit. Pauline Kael called Mazursky a hip Chekhov, and that’s the territory where Baumbach, too, hangs his hat.

I had a wonderful time at The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which had a brief art-house run in a few cities just as it became available on Netflix. Unlike While We’re Young, which doesn’t quite make it across the finish line (though I loved it), Baumbach’s latest works all the way through. It’s a loose, impressionistic chronicle of several generations of a messy, artsy New York family. The grandfather, Harold Meyerowitz, is an aging second-rank sculptor on his third marriage, to Maureen (Emma Thompson, in her best role in years), an alcoholic who dresses as if it were still 1969. (Her somewhat blowsy free-spirit costumes were designed by Joseph G. Aulisi.) Harold has three children from his two previous marriages – Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) from his first, Matthew (Ben Stiller), who lives on the West Coast, from his second, to Julia (played by Candace Bergen, who has only one scene but a lovely one). Matthew is a successful business manager for artists. When he visits New York he makes a little time for his dad, but he seems to be in perpetual struggle against Harold’s idiosyncrasies; it feels as if his entire adult life has been an effort to transcend his father’s unconventionality and waywardness. He doesn’t make time for his half-siblings, though Danny in particular adores him. When Harold left Danny and Jean’s mother for Julia, she wasn’t very welcoming to the kids from his first marriage (which she now feels guilty about), and their sense that they had become also-rans has dogged them all their lives. Jean, who works for Xerox, is nervous and insecure and the way she dresses and wears her hair bespeaks her inability to think of herself as desirable. Danny had some musical talent but never developed it; he was a house husband while he and his now-estranged wife were raising their daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) and aside from giving piano lessons for a while he’s never actually had a paid job. Danny is still fighting for his father’s attention – just as he and Jean did when Harold was living with Julia – whereas Harold, in his unaccommodating way, is fighting for Matthew’s.

The movie is very funny, but it’s a comedy about regret. The only character who doesn’t feel any regret is, appropriately, Eliza, an aspiring filmmaker who has just been accepted to Bard, where her grandfather taught for years, and whose life is ahead of her. Her movies are terrible, but it doesn’t matter because she’s only eighteen and because her family dotes on her and praises her, and their lifelong liberal attitudes prevent them from demonstrating any discomfort when she keeps showing up naked or half-naked in them. (Now there’s a detail Mazursky would have loved.) And also because her relationship with her father is easy and emotionally secure; it’s the only one we see that appears to carry no baggage. Grace Van Patten has a warm, likable presence that, in tandem with the way Baumbach has written the part, has the effect of grounding the picture – of providing a relaxed, un-neurotic space inside it.

Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). (Photo: Atsushi Nishijima)

The entire cast is excellent, including Adam Sandler, most of whose previous attempts to be taken seriously as an actor, like Punch-Drunk Love and Spanglish and Reign Over Me, seemed deeply misguided. (The exception was Funny People, where, playing a version of the movie’s writer-director Judd Apatow, he gave a surprisingly convincing performance – more convincing than anything else in that bloated, self-indulgent picture.) In The Meyerowitz Stories he’s so completely in character as the tentative, still semi-formed Danny, who releases his anger against his circumstances when he gets behind the wheel of a car, that you don’t see Sandler the goofy stand-up comic at all and yet he never seems to be reaching. Hoffman brings a slightly loony grandeur to the role of Harold, who’s baffled – and pissed – that in his declining years he’s not receiving the recognition for a lifetime of work that he’s sure he deserves. He’s a misplaced king, the pretender to a throne who refuses to acknowledge that he lost his bid long ago. When his friend L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch) gets a show at the Museum of Modern Art, Harold drops by the opening but he’s too resentful to stay very long; he’s certain that he’s as deserving of the honor of a solo show, though the only one he gets into is a group show at Bard built around the work of emeritus faculty. His pride and joy is the piece the Whitney once bought, but the museum seems to have misplaced it.

Stiller is terrific, as he often is these days. Around the same time Baumbach released The Meyerowitz Stories Stiller played the title role in Mike White’s Brad’s Status, about a man whose road trip with his kid, a promising musician, for his Harvard interview turns into an occasion for coming to terms with the fact that he’s the only one of his group of college friends who didn’t become some kind of star. White fumbles the tone badly. At first it seems clear that he’s satirizing Brad, whose attempts at compensating for what he thinks of as inferior status are excruciatingly funny; but the film keeps turning sentimental, and by the end I had no idea what White was trying to do with the title character. Stiller’s performance, though (and that of Austin Abrams as his low-key but frequently embarrassed son) held me; he’s gotten to be a sort of genius at playing self-serious middle-aged guys who can’t help shooting themselves in the foot. (The glory of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which he also directed, is that the Stiller character gets out of his own way and becomes a genuine hero.) 

The Meyerowitz Stories has a large, lively cast that includes Rebecca Miller as Shapiro’s daughter, a childhood friend whom Danny reconnects with and dreams of a romance with, as well as, in cameos, Adam Driver, Sigourney Weaver, stage director David Cromer and Josh Hamilton (who often shows up in Baumbach’s movies). Baumbach uses them the way Mazursky used to use the personalities in his supporting casts, for their quirky, uncategorizable qualities – or in Weaver’s case as herself – as if he’d just happened to run into them at a party and invited them back to the set. The movie is a lark, as sweet as it is spiky. There’s a scene with a rich inner glow in which Danny and Eliza sit down at the piano and sing a duet, a tune that he wrote for her years ago. Eliza shows up again at the end, to provide a final grace note, which is, I think, the best last scene Baumbach has ever shot. It was smart of him to give it to Van Patten’s Eliza – it makes emotional sense that the movie ends with her.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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