A dream cast is only one microcosmic gene in the biology that makes Netflix’s new offering, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), a joy to behold. Frances Ha director Noah Baumbach’s pottering dramedy is an exquisite and densely scripted minefield of humour and poignancy that, whilst never exactly being relatable, feels beautifully true to life.
Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and, to a disappointingly lesser extent, Elizabeth Marvel play Danny, Matthew and Jean Meyerowitz, the three subtly damaged children to Dustin Hoffman’s man-child, past-prime, artist Harold, who is currently married to alcoholic ditz Maureen – a riotously absent-minded turn by Emma Thompson. Just take a moment here to appreciate that cast (yes, even Sandler!) Next, allow your jaw to drop with the revelation that Adam Driver and Sigourney Weaver make appearances too – the latter as herself – whilst Randy Newman is behind the quietly lovely jazzy piano score.
Matthew is the favoured child for Harold; he’s: ‘the only one in the family who’s figured out how to make money’, his father’s computer password and the sole offspring to have been honoured with a piece of his father’s art sharing his name. He’s also, of course, mostly absent in his father’s delusional life. The oldest sibling, Danny is a limping, new-divorcee, who has never worked in his life and is going through that stage of parenting in which your child leaves for college. Fun, charming and little hapless on the surface, Danny has an anger within him that explodes in very brief outbursts, wholly at odds with his lost soul. His failure to find a parking slot in the opening is wonderfully telling: ‘What’s the matter with me? I’m usually very good at this’. Jean, meanwhile, wears a life of being overlooked in her lankly despondent hair; in her office she’s ‘known as the resident auteur’ for her funny videos whilst at home, and even in the script, she’s often forgotten.
What really sings about The Meyerowitz Stories is just how succinctly each of these characters is fleshed out. For at least half of his runtime, Baumbach is content with a laissez-faire approach to plot, allowing development to take the fore. Hoffman is exceptional at the top of the tree, entirely self-centred, oddly lovable and deeply inadequate as a father figure. When situations don’t go his way, Harold literally runs off, in a jaunty old fashion, instead of dealing with the problem. He’s totally absorbed in his own hermitised existence (‘I think I’m doing the best work of my life right now but it’s just one man’s opinion’) and reels through foibles so well embedded that Hoffman might have been working on this performance all his life. And you should see the other dog.
In a literary, vignetted approach to storytelling – think Tarantino with the sentiment of Jim Jarmusch – the film is divided into a succession of Chapters rather than existing as a cohesive whole. It’s a move that pays dividends come a denouement that is both satisfying and without total closure.
Only as the film evolves does Baumbach reveal the extent to which the Meyerowitz clan have been affected by their upbringing, moving from blackly comic lines: ‘Now that I live 3000 miles away and have my own kid, thriving business, I don’t even get angry at him anymore’ to manneristic parallels that are content to merely exist without having to be forcibly pointed out. Observe, for instance, how Jean deals with an uncomfortable carpark encounter later on. Played excellently by Marvel, it’s hard to decide whether a decision to downplay her role in the film (she’s not on the poster, whilst her ‘chapter’ comes bracketed) is inspired or a shame. With this talent, probably a shame.
Sandler’s has been an mixed career but manages to pull off something rather revelatory here in a performance emblematic of why this all works so well. In aspiring for gentility and a downplayed tonal state, both actor and film attain hilarity and devastation naturally, in a perfectly unforced and sagely anecdotal manner. Genuinely lovely.