It’s there, in the dinky Fairfield hospital room, where Danny is first reunited with his eminently more successful half-younger brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller, working with Baumbach for the third time and clearly fluent in his rhythms and ways of thinking). The two boys are joined by their withdrawn sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who largely stands outside of the story but still manages to be the catalyst for some of its biggest laughs. All the same, her dislocation seems by design, as the film — divided into pieces by a handful of title cards — can’t afford for the Meyerowitzs to feel like a cohesive unit. This is a movie about how everyone in a family feels like they’re on their own, even when that family couldn’t possibly exist without them. It’s a movie about a number of different stories (new and selected), but it’s also only one story.
As Danny and his daughter sit at a piano and sing together in one of the most moving scenes that Baumbach has ever written: “There’s always you, there’s always me, there’s always us.” That lyric alone might be enough to know that Baumbach hired Randy Newman for all of the film’s music.
Told through a shaggy five-act structure that can be broken down into “I love you,” “forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “thank you,” and “goodbye” (an arc that’s probably as familiar to everyone as it is to Jewish kids), “The Meyerowitz Stories” lacks the youthful energy of “Mistress America” or the raw trauma of “The Squid and the Whale,” but it makes up for those deficits with a lived-in understanding of how family shapes who we are. It’s not a qualitative judgement — only children may not come out of this feeling like they were deprived of something — but Baumbach recognizes that our identity is never just our own, and he knows how that can work itself out in all sorts of ugly, anarchic ways.
The film also benefits from Baumbach’s newfound flair for show-stopping comic set-pieces (Sandler and Stiller are a brilliantly believable pair), some disproportionately sharp dialogue (“If dad’s not a great artist, that means he was just a prick”), and lucid cinematography from “American Honey” D.P. Robbie Ryan that chisels every frame with the flinty edge of real life. Most of all, it benefits from its cast. Van Patten sparks things to life every time she’s on screen, or even on a screen within the screen, and Adam Sandler… well, it remains hugely frustrating how great Adam Sandler can be when he’s not making Adam Sandler movies.
Frustrated, lonely, and struggling to get over the feeling that he should just accept his brokenness, Danny is a vintage Baumbach man (like a less rigid Roger Greenberg), and Sandler’s mustached performances makes the character feel like someone you know, or someone you might be. Possibly both. Playing a guy who, like his father, “must have a real tolerance for discomfort,” the Artist Formerly Known as Sandy Wexler is exceptional in a low-key turn as a person who can’t tell the difference between the pain he has to live with and the hurt he can actually help. Watching him work out the difference is the film’s greatest pleasure. Sandler makes you want to tell Danny what Danny eventually tells to his father: “Thank you for letting me be a part of your process.”
“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It will be released on Netflix later this year.