Disproving Tolstoy’s adage that all happy families are alike but all unhappy families are unhappy in different ways, the Meyerowitz family at the centre of Noah Baumbach’s new film looks an awful lot like the Berkmans in The Squid and the Whale. In that film, the teenage children suffered the harsh divorce of their parents, who seem to think precious little of their children’s wellbeing; in this new joint, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvell play grown-up children who resent their parents for their treatment of them when young. In returning to this subject which feels so deeply personal (although with a less caustic, more forgiving eye than before), Baumbach produces some of his most honest and comedic material.
We first meet the family through the perspective of Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler), who effectively incarnates the heart of the film: a shlubby, vulnerable slacker, he craves the love and recognition of his father, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), an artist who has never gained the recognition he feels he deserves. The relationship immediately recalls that of Jesse Eisenberg and Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale: here is the well-meaning, shuffling, sadly seething son, and here is the terse, vain, mean-spirited father who has no love but for himself. Sandler is good at embodying Danny’s easy manner, his apologetic demeanour, and the front he puts up of being in control, for his teenage daughter and his reserved, weird sister. In turn, Dustin Hoffman yields nothing as the father, eradicating any twinkle from his performance: this is a man who doesn’t listen, a man in constant search of a fight, someone who feels the world has cheated him. It’s to Baumbach’s credit that he can eke a light, winning tone out of this painful relationship, particularly in the film’s early vignettes which set the scene so ably.
The film’s skittish voice is its best quality, giving a vintage Woody Allen flavour to the family’s interactions and presenting the story as a succession of episodes rather than a heavy overview of everyone’s psyche. Meyerowitz senior’s character is presented so well when the family meet a gay couple interested in buying the family house, and he observes, “They were a nice mixed-race homosexual couple.” Baumbach’s ear for a little dig, or the odd line that betrays a character’s essence, is so potent in this first half.
A little later, Matthew Meyerowitz is added to the mix. As played by Ben Stiller, he’s the successful son, the apple of his father’s eye, who has distanced himself from the Meyerowitz clan and still resents his father. When Meyerowitz father is taken to hospital, all the family’s old peeves and rivalries resurface, which is where the movie begins to lose some of its charm in favour of some rather laboured emotional resolution. Of course the siblings must work out their issues, and of course there must be a confrontation between the brothers on a lawn. Baumbach manages the backstories and battles rather less well than he does the easy scenes of everyone kicking back or effortlessly needling each other. Sandler, too, falls at this hurdle: in his big emotional climax his acting becomes far too pointed, and he shouts his rage rather than embodying it.
The Meyerowitz Stories doesn’t have a whole lot more to it than this set-up and its resolution. Where The Squid and the Whale transcended the specifics of its drama, seeming to speak to all teenage angst and all family conflicts through the sheer rancour of its dialogue, this new film has a milder quality that makes it more forgettable. Baumbach also hasn’t learned to challenge his own perspective: the film makes a big deal out of the fact that Harold neglects Jean, his daughter, but the film neglects her too, making her character take a backseat to the brothers’ story. It’s also not a great idea to have one character of colour and make him sit through stretches of the film in silence. A slightly more querying eye could resolve these problems and give the film more shape, more acuteness.
Much of the film is winning though, particularly when Baumbach surrenders to his talent for observation and lets us watch, for instance, a son and his father sit down for dinner together. Then, clockwork precision of eye for detail, for the way character emanates from small actions, his ear for the way a banal situation or misunderstanding can draw out animosity or truth, come out in full force.