Near the end of The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) says: “you know sometimes I wish Dad had done one horrible, unforgivable thing, something specific I could be angry about. But it isn’t one thing, it’s tiny things every day.” It’s a perfect observation of his father, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) but also a perfect observation of the movie. What is it about? It’s about family, about the damage a parent can do, about sibling rivalry, about success, legacy, fulfillment, forgiveness, and death. It’s about all those things, but more than anything it’s about the tiny moments that build up life and how you deal with the fact that life isn’t a series of big moments. It’s only a series of tiny moments.
The Meyerowitz Stories does have a plot, albeit a loose one. The story focuses on the Meyerowitz family, connected through their patriarch, Harold, a sculptor with little success. Harold lives in NYC with his fourth wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson), though they are considering moving to Maureen’s country home on Long Island. Paying them visits, first separately and then in the back half of the film all together, are Harold’s three children, Jean Meyerowitz (Elizabeth Marvel) and Danny Meyerowitz, from his second marriage, and Matthew Meyerowitz (Ben Stiller) a product of Harold’s third marriage.
Breaking down the specific conflicts and rivalries between all the characters would be impossible, for the simple fact that they are all too well realized, and each character has a unique, multi-layered relationship. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (of Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale fame) has exhibited an affection for his characters since his wonderful debut film Kicking and Screaming (no, not that Kicking and Screaming, this Kicking and Screaming). “You guys will never understand what it means to be me in this family,” Jean insists after her brothers destroy a car in a misguided attempt to cheer her up. And it’s true, more than true. None of the characters will ever be able to fully understand what it is like to be each other, because they are all too deeply themselves, but they can attempt to at least reach an understanding.
Baumbach alone cannot take all the credit. Just as there is not a single weakly conceived character, they are all brought expertly to life by the all-star cast. Sandler easily delivers his best performance, outstripping even his other famous dramatic turn in Punch-Drunk Love. His relationship with his college-bound daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) is a beautiful anchor, perhaps the sole non-dysfunctional relationship in the entire movie. Sandler has built a career on playing annoying manchildren, and while Danny is in some ways a manchild he is an excellent father and exudes such love for a family that has hurt him time and time again it is impossible to not think him foolish and admire him at the same time. Elizabeth Marvel plays the more enigmatic, pragmatic side of the same coin as the resolutely supportive Jean who recognizes more than Danny how deeply she has been hurt but who comes through time and time again because “that’s what you do”. Even the bit parts are played with deep empathy. Maureen, Harold’s alcoholic scattered fourth wife set on selling the apartment he raised his children in could be an easy villain, but Emma Thompson never allows her to be anything less than human – her faults are annoying, but her heart is good. Candice Bergen delivers a gut punch in a single scene, bringing sympathy and depth to a character the audience is primed to dislike up until that point. I could go on…
It’s difficult to review a movie like The Meyerowitz Stories. It’s a movie about life that looks like life and feels like life. It has a structure, and a forward thrust, but only because time passes, only because relationships change, and only because that’s the way things are. Directly before the movie begins multiple characters have changes in their life we never see, and the movie ends with promise of more change in the future. The subtitle “New and Selected” is important: these characters have lots of stories, and those little tiny stories build up a life. Harold Meyerowitz is disappointed with his legacy, because he doesn’t see that those tiny moments are the ones that matter, each of them, all of them. He wants some definite legacy, but you don’t get that. You get a thousand tiny legacies, who in turn have a thousand tiny legacies. So reviewing the movie is hard, because really I want to sit here and obsess over the tiny moments these characters offer us: the hilarious way Harold Meyerowitz runs, the time Maureen waves to Matthew before very slowly crashing her car into a tree, the bag of peas she has over her eye in the next scene, the disconcerting moment when a person Danny thought was in his father’s house to look at art tests the water pressure in his shower, a simple duet Danny plays with his daughter. They build a wonderful, powerful movie, but they’re valuable on their own, and I encourage you to go and experience them.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is 10 Bard Student Films out of 10 Meyerowitz Sculptures.
- Adam Driver makes a brief cameo as a pouty rich boy who really wants a pool. A genuinely fun performance from him.
- The film unwaveringly good looking. As with everything in this film its difficult to put my finger on why. It’s lots of small things: wonderful (tall) New York City apartments filled with sunlight. New York City streets at night. They make the MoMa look great. The spaces look lived in and full.
- Noah Baumbach writes about very privileged people and has never made a secret about that. So, you know, just know that.
- This movie was distributed by (and is on) Netflix so you have no reason to not watch it!