Everybody thinks their family is unique, and everybody thinks their family is fucked up.
Sure, everyone’s family might technically be unique, but zoom out far enough, and nobody’s special: All your sweet grandmothers and tow-headed children blur into everybody else’s sweet grandmothers and tow-headed children. And sure, zoom in close enough, and just about every family is fucked up—as fucked up, that is, as every other family.
So there’s the trap that most family dramas and comedies fall into: Assuming that because their characters are wacky or clever, or because they have fucked-up relationships, audiences will care. That’s rarely the case: Audiences already have their own families to care about. Getting them to invest in a fictional one requires something else: a humanistic eye for detail, or a subtle sense of what it is about families that makes being trapped inside one equally attractive and repulsive.
Most filmmakers don’t have that eye or that sense. Noah Baumbach does.
Baumbach—the guy behind The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, Frances Ha, While We’re Young, and, weirdly, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted—is the latest auteur to abandon the arthouse for Netflix. The Meyerowitz Stories is getting a theatrical release in 10 cities—Seattle isn’t one of them—but for everyone else, it’ll pop up on Netflix, where the company’s algorithm may or may not suggest it to you based on how many times you saw Frances Ha. Or Madagascar 3.
Even if Netflix doesn’t think you’ll like it, Meyerowitz is worth searching for. It’s got a great cast: Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Emma Thompson, and Elizabeth Marvel hold down the leads, with side characters played by the likes of Candice Bergen, Adam Driver, Judd Hirsch, and Sigourney Weaver. It’s got Baumbach’s sharp ear for dialogue, with its Manhattanite characters rambling and mumbling, shouting and interrupting. And it’s got a hard-to-describe feel about it: The feeling of people who’re trying to do their best, and failing. The feeling of people who know they should care more about their relatives than they do. The feeling of simultaneous desperation and comfort. They feeling of family.
Baumbach introduces three siblings: Danny (Sandler), a loving dad who’s lost now that his daughter is heading to college; Matthew (Stiller), a financially successful, emotionally pathetic neurotic; and Jean (Marvel), whose steady deadpan masks a hard-edged toughness. The only thing they’ve got in common is their dad, Harold (Hoffman), who’s either a great sculptor who never got his due or a mediocre sculptor who got exactly the due he deserved. Either way, he’s cranky and bitter, with his cantankerous charm barely covering his incessant criticism of his children, his friends, and his ex-wife (Bergen). He rarely has an ill word to say about his current wife, Maureen (Thompson), but Maureen’s drinking isn’t what any of the Meyerowitzes need.
If it sounds like a lot to track, it is: Baumbach throws us right into the Meyerowitz’s family dynamics, with half-remembered resentments bubbling beneath awkward hugs.
Even as Baumbach’s film gets wobbly toward the end, the cast holds it together. Over all of Adam Sandler’s years of... well, being Adam Sandler, he’s nailed a few unquestionably great performances—Punch Drunk Love, Funny People—and with Meyerowitz, he adds another, expertly balancing sentimentality and self-loathing. Stiller is similarly good: Tight-wound and earnest, he’s the living embodiment of the stress that comes from caring too much about some things and too little about others.
But back to that ending: As Meyerowitz tacks on epilogue after epilogue, it loses its rhythm, as if Baumbach can’t bear to say goodbye to his characters. But maybe that’s the only way to end a movie like this one: The Meyerowitzes will go on, just like most families, and they’ll still be fucked up, and they’ll still keep trying. “I keep thinking I know how to handle you now,” Matthew tells Harold, “but then I see you and get sucked into your shit all over again.” And that, for better and worse, might be the most accurate description of “family” I’ve heard in a while.