This is the latest installment of a series exploring significant films from the careers of directors showing new work at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Noah Baumbach characters are almost always enduring growing pains, even if they stopped growing years ago. One of his most defining characteristics as a filmmaker is his ability to create coming-of-age stories for any age group.
“The Meyerowitz Stories,” Baumbach’s first film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, sounds Baumbachian enough: It centers on an estranged family that convenes in New York for an event celebrating the artistic work of their father. The film stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, and Emma Thompson.
Soured relationships and artistic achievement are recurring themes in Baumbach’s work, and are often directly related to the painful transitions that take his characters from one chapter of life to another. Baumbach’s 1995 debut, “Kicking and Screaming,” mines this territory to hilarious effect, following a group of aimless best friends who continue living in their college town after graduation. Grover (Josh Hamilton) and Jane (Olivia d’Abo) break up when Jane enrolls in a writing program in Prague, a revelation that packs additional punch since Grover also harbors literary ambitions.
Distraught, Grover clings to his collegiate existence rather than getting on with his life, lingering around campus with his three roommates, all of whom abandoned their plans to move on or just avoided making any decisions in the first place. “We stay together out of fear,” Chris Eigeman’s Max says. “That’s all we know.”
The foursome are all technically grownups, and fancy themselves sophisticates, filling out crossword puzzles and competing vigorously in trivia games, but they usually sound like children making thinly disguised cries for help. They’re terrified of doing the one thing that signifies officially becoming an adult: leaving school and joining the real world. Baumbach tapped into a critical turning point in his characters’ lives with “Kicking and Screaming,” paving the way for him to explore similar but less obvious transitions with his subsequent films.
In 2005, Baumbach released his critically acclaimed breakout film “The Squid and the Whale,” about the impact of a divorcing couple on their young sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). Parents Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) have a similar dynamic to Grover and Jane: Bernard is a professor who still hasn’t found commercial success as a writer, while Joan’s writing is starting to gain serious recognition. In the aftermath of their divorce, Walt clings to his father, despite receiving questionable advice about dating. “You might not want to be attached at your age,” Bernard says. Walt also blames his mother for the divorce, accusing her of having an affair because Bernard never made it as a writer.
Like the recent grads in “Kicking and Screaming,” Walt is avoiding a harsh reality: His parents’ marriage has run its course. Rather than accepting that his nuclear family is coming apart, Walt tries to strengthen his relationship with dad. Though all four family members have to come to terms with the divorce, it’s Walt’s ultimate acceptance that his dad is no longer his idol that is the most moving. He releases himself from Bernard’s grip, and finally turns the page in his life.
One of Baumbach’s more recent films, 2014’s “While We’re Young,” again looks at a marriage on the ropes, again featuring a struggling artist working as a college professor. Ben Stiller’s Josh is having trouble finishing his latest documentary, and he and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are trying — unsuccessfully — to have a child. They’re also just begun to come to terms with being middle aged. Josh still squabbles with his acclaimed-filmmaker father-in-law Leslie (Charles Grodin) like an adolescent, while not wanting to accept that he’s old enough to have arthritis. As a result, he tries ollerblading, hanging out with 20-something aspiring filmmaker Jamie (Adam Driver), and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs.
Ultimately, Josh and Cornelia warm up to the idea of acting their age. “For the first time in my life, I stopped thinking myself as a child imitating an adult,” Josh says to Cornelia. “You feel that way too?” she responds. Josh still has sour grapes when the youthful Jamie becomes a hit filmmaker, but Corneila reminds him, “He’s not evil. He’s just young.”
While there are clear similarities between Baumbach’s creative types going through personal crisis, he manages to never repeat himself, particularly as he alternates between telling stories about young adults, children, and people entering middle age. “The Meyerowitz Stories” features another artist patriarch in Dustin Hoffman, and may have the most grown-up cast of any of this films, but if Baumbach’s thematic tendencies are any indication, these characters will still have plenty of growing up to do.
“The Meyerowitz Stories” premieres in Competition at Cannes on Sunday, May 21, 2017.