The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), the new family comedy written and directed by Noah Baumbach, opens with anger. Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler), a failed musician and stay-at-home dad, is trying to park, but the spaces are too small—this is New York City—and other cars keep trying to beep him out of the way. It’s a recipe that calls for a heady dose of Sandleresque fuck-yous and frustrated huffs and puffs. It’s an occasion, too, for helpful interjections on the part of his 19-year-old daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), a budding filmmaker and newly anointed Cindy Sherman obsessive who knows better than to stand in the way of her father’s silly rage.
She’s right to stay out of it. Danny, we eventually learn, is a pretty frustrated guy. He’s a recently divorced, unemployed 40-something about to move back in with his dad, Harold, a notable but obscure sculptor who’s not shy about expressing his disappointment in his three adult children. There’s the aforementioned Danny; Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who works a nondescript position at Xerox; and Matthew (Ben Stiller), who has done quite well for himself as a business manager in L.A., but who’s nevertheless a failure in Harold’s eyes for chasing the money. “I would’ve thought we had more artists in the family,” Harold, played by Dustin Hoffman, says to Danny and Jean at dinner one night, over a shark stew prepared by his alcoholic fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson). It isn’t a passive-aggressive dig in the least.
Just kidding! Welcome to life with the Meyerowitz clan, in which old resentments still seethe in the present, and in which no one—not Danny, Jean, or Matthew, and certainly not Harold—has lived up to their own idea of their potential. You wouldn’t, for example, call Harold a “failed” artist, per se. He’s got that one piece in the Whitney Museum … somewhere. No one can find it, but it’s definitely there. And the closest thing he’s had to date to a career retrospective is a coffee-table collectible Danny and Jean printed up on their own dime, from a company that makes hardbound photo books from the pictures you send it. Harold’s moment was in the ’70s, when his kids were kids, which is why he looms so large in their frenzied, insecure, fucked-for-life adult imaginations as an artistic success. Now, at the encouragement of Matthew, Harold is on the verge of selling his house and all of his sculptures to a perfectly nice gay couple that plans to donate his life’s work to retirement homes across the country. His three kids, meanwhile, are now middling adults, each unhappy in their own way. As Baumbach’s humorously fraught movie shows, there are few things more bitter than the warring insecurities of sad adults.
Thankfully, The Meyerowitz Stories isn’t a bitter movie. It is, for the most part, a quick-witted, cleverly conceived delight, with old Baumbach tricks thrown into the mix with new ones to make this otherwise somewhat familiar story—for Baumbach, anyway—feel fresh with style and insight. The movie, which competed at Cannes earlier this year, debuts on Netflix this Friday to go with a limited theatrical release, making it one of the more prestigious streaming offerings of its kind. It’s broken up into four parts, each functioning as its own separate story—per the movie’s too-witty, overlong title—and culminating in an art show, organized by Danny and Jean, meant to celebrate their father’s work. Even that honor is a dishonor: It’s a group show with some of Harold’s old colleagues from Bard, where he used to teach when, it becomes clear, his work mattered. He wants no part of it.
But his kids do. What’s it like to grow up in the shadow of an unsatisfied, mediocre artist? “Maybe I need my dad to be a genius because I don’t want his life to be worthless,” says Matthew late in the movie, “and if not, that means he was just a prick.” If you’re Danny and Jean (products of Harold’s second marriage), being the offspring of Harold Meyerowitz means you get neglected because he’s in his prime and about to abandon your mother. If you’re their half-brother, Matthew (the product of the third marriage), meanwhile, you get the brunt of Harold’s focus, which means you’ve been given some unfulfillable ideals to aspire to.
The Meyerowitz siblings are an odd troupe, accordingly, each of them trapped in who they are. The standout is the limping, cargo-shorts-wearing Danny, a Sandler character to the extreme, with sudden rage fits and a knack for knocking out bittersweet ditties on the piano—bittersweet because Danny was supposed to be a pianist, and is instead just an unemployable middle-aged guy who plays songs around the house with his daughter. He’s a man confronting his own displacement, moving in with a more-or-less distant father as that daughter—and, to this point, full-time job—heads off to college. When he calls her once she’s left for school, she’s the one who sounds like the parent: “I’m gonna leave my phone on in case you need to call,” she says, sensing her father’s depression. Sandler, as ever a nimble vortex of man-child emotions, gives the character the kind of richness you’ll find unsurprising if you’ve seen his more auteur-friendly movies, like Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People. It’s a role winning him awards attention because it’s name-brand “serious.” In truth, the growth-stunted sadness of Sandler is always there, be it in Big Daddy or a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Some movies, like Meyerowitz, simply premise themselves on forcing us to see it.
Sandler—and Stiller, Marvel, and Hoffman beside him—gives Meyerowitz the frenzied energy Baumbach’s best movies need. What I love about Baumbach is the affection he has for characters he nevertheless needles and prods until they fall apart, or blow up, or whatever else the movie has in store. You sense that he makes movies about people he knows—other artists, much of the time, and intelligent failures, archetypes he’s been chipping away at since his 1995 debut, Kicking and Screaming, made when he was 26. That was a movie about recent college grads informed by Baumbach’s own college experiences at Vassar. It was also a movie in which characters talk too much about too little, a tonally flat affair that would’ve benefited from being directed by the sharper, funnier filmmaker Baumbach is today. Over the years, Baumbach has learned how to cut his characters’ insecure witticisms with screwbally undercurrents. His best movies are his collaborations with Greta Gerwig (particularly Frances Ha and Mistress America), because they balance long-running Baumbach themes (failed 20-somethings and broke artists, among others) with Gerwig’s loving sense of chaos. She encouraged his movies to fly off the rails. Meyerowitz lacks Gerwig (whose own directorial debut, the fabulous Lady Bird, comes out in November), and it doesn't quite match the freewheeling energy of those collaborations, but it’s inflected with a post-Gerwig sense of humor. Just look at the way his characters enter and exit a scene—the way Jean, for example, emerges at a dinner party from out of nowhere, having been ignored the whole time by the camera because, as we learn, she tends to be ignored by the entire family. (“You guys will never understand what it’s like to be me in this family,” she eventually says.)
Everything is a quiet punch line, down to the way scenes get cut off just as the characters arrive at a bad decision or an irreconcilable emotion. We immediately collide into what comes next. Family and social rituals, like dinner or an art show, become a chance for Baumbach’s characters to go to war—sometimes physically. For me, a brawl late in the movie is the only real misstep here. With all the verbal and psychological brawling going on otherwise, to say nothing of the clearly enunciated anger, we almost don’t need it. Really, the characters have been fighting the whole time.
But that’s a minor nit. The Meyerowitz Stories is a movie about unfulfilled potential—but in the end, what matters is the potential. It seems like it’ll be too smart to offer something like reconciliation between the characters, yet that’s precisely what the movie’s after, albeit in its own, tangled-up way. Maybe that’s a little familiar. But after spending most of the run time a little resistant to the movie, I fell for it: Of all things, it was Ben Stiller crying uncontrollably—and poignantly, like a goof—that got me there. Despite having all the trappings of a movie that’s too wink-wink and upper-crust for its own good, Meyerowitz is a weirdly genuine piece of filmmaking. It’s a perfect vehicle for the people it’s about—not least because it’s art better than what any of them could make.