The reason that “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival this morning, won’t be an Oscar contender is that it will open day and date in a few theaters at the same time that it’s available online. While the now-customary Netflix boos broke out in the morning press screening, they were balanced by applause as well.
And while juror Pedro Almodovar has promised to give both Netflix movies (the other is Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja”) a fair shake, it doesn’t matter if “The Meyerowitz Stories” eventually wins a prize, or snags superb reviews for its acerbic slice of a New York Jewish family or sly comedic actors who deliver emotion as well as laughs. (Our own David Ehrlich is already raving.) If a movie doesn’t take the usual theater route to success, it is unlikely to gain any Oscar traction. (Another would-be awards contender, Dee Rees’s Sundance breakout “Mudbound,” will also test Netflix’s ability to pull off this feat, as did “Beasts of No Nation.”)
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“Having people who have humor embedded in everything was important to the material,” said writer-director Noah Baumbach at the press conference, where he admitted that he had initially expected the independent super 16 film to be seen in theaters. But during post-production, the IAC Films and Scott Rudin production went to Netflix, the home of Adam Sandler’s deal to make movies for online streaming.
But the big-screen experience “is not going away,” Baumbach said, thanking Netflix for being “hugely” supportive. Netflix hasn’t yet figured out its release plan; they often book their pictures via their iPics chain, but could pact with another theatrical distributor. Even then they’d still play on second-tier independent screens not affliliated with the major theater chains.
Baumbauch delivers another trademark exploration of a New York dysfunctional family dominated by a narcissistic artist. This time, Dustin Hoffman is the patriarch; Emma Thompson is his third wife; Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are his two sons; Elizabeth Marvel (“House of Cards”) is their sister, and Candice Bergen has a delicious cameo as Wife Number Two.
Sandler returns to dramatic form and to the Cannes Competition for the first time since Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 “Punch Drunk Love.” Baumbach wrote the film’s two brothers, one confidently successful (Stiller), the other a would-be musician and Mr. Mom (Sandler) in mind. There’s no point in speculating if the film could have had an awards shot. The producers opted for it be widely seen and to make their money back, and then some. These deals get made when Netflix outbids the competition.
Producer Scott Rudin is an inveterate Oscar campaigner, and he may try to push the Netflix theatrical envelope: what happens when their marketing meets his demands? This will be fascinating to watch.
Emma Thompson, who is a brilliant screenwriter as well as actress, shined at the press conference, joking about how it was a challenge to enter a foreign American culture but not hard to play an alcoholic. But the truth is, Baumbach gives her little to do in the movie. As usual, women play supporting roles to the movie’s three leading men, as wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, while Dustin Hoffman’s narcissistic patriarch — the part that might have earned him an eighth Oscar nomination — and his two sons gobble up most of the juicy dialogue.
“In various ways, I’m interested in the gap between who we think we are and who we want to be,” said Baumbach, “and how far that gap is. Professional success and fame and the arts is a way to examine that. What does success mean, and mean to different people?”
To craft the film, he relied on “families I’ve known in and am familiar with. In some ways art is the religion and that takes the place of everything.”
(Another film in the festival, “The Square,” Ruben Ostlund’s follow-up to “Force Majeure,” also looks at the fine arts with a jaundiced eye.)
Hoffman, who said he initially didn’t want to play an older man, met with Baumbach many times to compare notes on “both our fathers,” he said. “We are our father at certain points.”
“All the characters are operating from a position of shame,” said Thompson, except for Adam Sandler’s daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), who “makes wonderful movies. All our culture is built around this shaming thing.”
Added Sandler: “Therapy doesn’t end, it keeps going when you get older.”
“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It will be released on Netflix later this year.