by Freda Cooper
According to his best-known lines, Philip Larkin believed that parents were responsible for making a mess of our lives. But in Noah Baumbach’s latest, The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected), the director points the finger fairly and squarely at the patriarch of the family, a master when it comes to pushing his two sons’ respective buttons in his own passive-aggressive way. The bottom line is that he’s not been a great father to any of his children and, in a collection of chapters, the results are made transparently clear. Not necessarily the most obvious of subjects for a comedy…
The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected); Dir.: Noah Baumbach; USA 2017, 112 mins; Our Rating ★★★★/5
Dysfunctional families are Baumbach’s comfort zone – just scroll forwards from The Squid And The Whale (2005) – and a happy hunting ground when it comes to comic potential. He takes it to new heights in The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected), which revolves around retired sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) and places him at the centre of every single episode in the film, even if he’s not physically there. From his perspective, that’s exactly where he should be.
He has two sons. Danny (Adam Sandler, in a return to real comedy), has his own story. He’s not the success his father would have hoped for but clearly has a close and loving relationship with daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). And Harold frequently – and unfavourably – compares him with his brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) and his more affluent lifestyle, the subject of the second story. Hovering in the background throughout is Harold’s daughter, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), constantly in everybody’s shadow, turning self-deprecation into an art form. As with all his other relationships, he can’t see what’s going on under his nose in his latest marriage to Maureen (Emma Thompson): he’s immune to her appalling cooking and, more seriously, believes her implicitly every time she says she’s given up alcohol.
A bump on the head upsets everything. What seems like a minor accident puts the elderly man in hospital and right at death’s door. As ever, though, he makes light of it, resorting to his fount of favourite phrases to describe it – “you should have seen the other dog.” As he trots them out to each of his offspring, as if for the first time, they become something of a refrain. And he can hardly contain his delight when he finds a new one, describing how he met Sigourney Weaver at an exhibition. “She was very chatty,” he recalls smugly. “She said, ‘Hi, I’m Sigourney’. And I said, ‘Hi, I’m Harold.’”
Baumbach tells his story with glee, treating the audience to comedic moments and entire scenes which are pure gold. If there’s a highlight, it’s when Matthew takes his father for lunch. Not only does dad reject his son’s choice of restaurant, when he eventually finds one he likes, he takes exception to the guy at the adjacent table. And when he’s convinced that the other diner has stolen his jacket, father and son chase after him. Harold’s body of work is a running gag in its own right, a series of rectangular blocks of wood. A retrospective exhibition isn’t so much a tribute, more an expression of disbelief at his success.
While Hoffman’s character is at the heart of the film, it’s essentially an ensemble piece and the cast sparkles at every turn. Hoffman himself is nothing short of a treat, while Emma Thompson is almost unrecognisable under a massive wig and glasses as his tipsy and ditsy wife. There’s others: Judd Hirsch as a rival sculptor, Rebecca Miller as his daughter and Danny’s real love who is always just out of reach. And a single scene cameo from Adam Driver as a client of Matthew’s, who’s a lost cause.
A joy from start to finish, The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected) will ring true with just about anybody and everybody when it comes to their relationships with parents or siblings. But, perhaps unlike real life, spending time with this particular family is no hardship at all.
Freda Cooper is a film critic and broadcaster. She tweets @FredaTalkingPix.