I approached The Meyerowitz Stories with a deep sense of fear. For one, there’s its undeniably smug title (New and Selected); reminiscent of a high school video project by proto-cinematic onanists proud of themselves for being so damn literary. For another, Baumbach is also the writer/director of the insufferable While We’re Young, a nauseating parade of quasi-intellectual references about the misery of being condemned to the life of a wealthy middle-aged New Yorker. I anticipated this to be an entry along similar lines.
And in many ways it is. Dustin Hoffman plays the patriarchal head of a deeply dysfunctional family, a self-absorbed artist who never found his audience, neglectful of his children and jealous of his more successful counterparts. The scene is New York, the setting is the art world and, yes, the characters are snide and intellectual. But the film, remarkably, avoids the obvious pitfalls. The characters aren’t nuisances, they’re human and well-constructed. The dialogue between them feels utterly real, Baumbach taking his time and allowing conservations to develop organically; the interactions between the family speak to a remarkably complex shared history and the awkward blend of their conflicting identities.
There’s the sweet and short tempered Danny, brilliantly played by Adam Sandler. Danny has been neglected by his father his whole life and compensates by looking after his daughter. The unarticulated tragedy, for him, is watching her gradually drift away into college and hipster nirvana. The reactions to this are subtle, but we can see that every little moment is imbued with a modest grief. His sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is, like him, a failed artist, much to their father’s obvious disappointment. She makes films for her office, of which she’s very proud, while Danny plays piano with his daughter, wondering if he could have made it as a musician. Ben Stiller’s Mathew meanwhile is estranged and successful. Always his father’s favourite, he resents him in a different way – for sharing too much time with him and, by extension, too many faults.
It’s most obvious comparison is The Royal Tenenbaums, but, in truth, these seems like an extrapolation of Baumbach’s earlier autobiographical work, The Squid and the Whale. In many ways the film is about the artistry that occurs at the atomic levels of daily life – the talent these children carry with them never manifested their lives, but, instead, appear in miniature sparks.