A poison-tipped portrait of living through his parents’ divorce, “The Squid and the Whale” has long been understood to be Noah Baumbach’s most explicitly autobiographical film. And yet, so much of his subsequent work — from the slapstick solipsism of “Mistress America” to the generational broadside of “While We’re Young” — is snagged on the perils of letting other people determine one’s self-worth. A Barnard freshman is desperate for the approval of her school’s most exclusive literary society. An esoteric director feels attacked when his new documentary about a leftist intellectual isn’t as warmly received as his doting protege’s dumb movie about some guy he knows on Facebook. Even “De Palma” hinges on an artist having the opportunity to reckon with his own reputation; it’s an extremely generous gift from one filmmaker to another.
So while “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” which premiered to strong reviews at Cannes and is now available on Netflix, might seem like a return to a more personal kind of cinema for Baumbach, the truth is that he’s never stopped exploring how pitiful life can be for people who — to paraphrase a line from “Mistress America” — can see the world with painful accuracy, but can’t see themselves or their fate. As far as Baumbach is concerned, family has always been the number one cause of that shortsightedness. Now, however, in what might be the most hopeful film he’s ever made (based on one of the best scripts he’s ever written), family is both the cause and the solution. That has to count as progress.
“All my films really do feel equally personal to me,” Baumbach insisted, hunched over in a hotel suite overlooking Central Park. “But I was aware that this one would draw some connections to ‘The Squid and the Whale,’ just because of the kind of family it is, and the impact that divorce has on them.” Always a bit more sincere and subdued than his hyper-neurotic characters might have you imagine, Baumbach went on to explain that at least some of the Meyerowitz stories have been kicking around since the days of Walt Berkman, who resulted from the writer-director’s aborted attempts to explore the effects of divorce on adult children. “I was interested in family mythologies, and how parents can form their own definitions of what success means, and their kids grow up brainwashed. It’s like deprogramming to try and get rid of it. It’s just a universal human struggle.”
Baumbach couldn’t get anywhere with that back in 2005, but he’s definitely gotten somewhere with it now.
Manhattan artist Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) once sculpted a famous piece called “Gilded Halfwing,” and he’s been living in the shadow of that little obelisk ever since. His three kids, each the result of a different marriage, might be the only things he’s produced since the early ’70s, and that fact isn’t lost on anyone in the family. Now “Gilded Halfwing” is locked in deep storage beneath the Whitney Museum, and Harold — in a desperate act of self-preservation — has soured on the world that couldn’t appreciate his genius.
So far as defense mechanisms go, it’s a tough one to sustain; he can’t even leave the house without getting screwed, or eat brunch with one of his sons at a Brooklyn diner without keeping score. He wears a tuxedo to a hip gallery show at MoMA, and literally runs down the street after learning that his name isn’t on the list.
The problem is that Harold has always thought of himself as an artist, not a dad; he’s spent his entire adult life privileging the validation of his contemporaries over the love of his children, and his children have inevitably come to see the world through their father’s veil of failure. Danny can’t even find a parking space in the Village without screaming at a few strangers (but then again, who can?). A stunted musician by Adam Sandler, roiling with his signature rage, Danny is a new divorcée who’s on the brink of turning into his dad. The most beautiful song he’s ever written is a simple piano duet he used to play with his daughter (Grace Van Patten) when she was growing up; now Eliza is going off to college, and he can hardly appreciate how powerful it is when they perform it together.
Matt (Ben Stiller) seems to be better off — he’s made a small fortune in the finance world — but Harold can’t brag about that to his friends. And then there’s Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), a wallflower who grew up away from her father’s gendered gaze, and now lives her life like she doesn’t care who’s looking. When Harold is hospitalized with a head injury and his kids all rally around his bedside, Jean is the only one keeps her shit together. Happy to hold down a generic office job and make funny movies for her co-workers, she’s a real outlier in the Baumbach cinematic universe; she holds her own standard. She runs like her dad, but she doesn’t resent people like him.
“Jean could have been a real casualty in this life,” Marvel explained to IndieWire, “but she found a way to make her own world. She survived, and she got out, and she found something that gives her pleasure. She makes cookies!” Marvel cackled, the radiant stage actress reflecting on one of the most contained roles she’s ever played (on the broad canvas of her career, Marvel said she painted this part in watercolor). “I find Jean to be very successful.”
At the same time, she thinks of Jean as the Fredo Corleone of the Meyerowitz family: “I feed on these weird connections!” Marvel laughed, remembering how she binged on John Cazale movies to prepare for the shoot. “The way Noah writes is so specific…The Meyerowitz characters all use the same words, each of which was chosen for a reason. That’s how families talk — we’re tribal creatures.”
For Baumbach, that tribe stems from the hyper-intellectual art world of New York in the ’60s and ’70s, where art supplanted religion, and even the goys felt Jewish. “Everybody liked Philip Roth” is how Baumbach put it. “I wasn’t even thinking of the Meyerowitz family as being overtly Jewish, I just liked the sound of the name,” he said. “I had just bought a photo by Joel Meyerowitz, a mid-’70s street photographer whose work I’ve always loved, and I think that it just kind of connects me to my childhood in a way. So does Dustin. That’s Harold’s generation.”
In Baumbach’s scripts, everybody talks a lot, but nobody hears themselves speak. And the people around them buy into it, because it would hurt too much to face the facts. There’s a bit more to that aforementioned passage from “Mistress America,” in which the heroine observes how someone brilliant could be blind to their own self-sabotage: “…And because I was in love with her, I decided I couldn’t see it either.”
In “The Meyerowitz Stories,” that sentiment assumes a much sharper form. Indeed, it’s possible that Baumbach has never written anything more puncturing than what falls out of Stiller’s mouth after his character finally sees the forest for the trees: “If dad’s not a great artist, that means he was just a prick.”
Of course, the tragedy of Harold Meyerowitz is that he’s a prick because he’s not a great artist. Or, more accurately, because he’s not appreciated as one. “The truth,” Baumbach said, “is that Harold is not a failure. He had a wonderful teaching career, and he made a profound impression on his students. Is ‘Gilded Halfwing’ a great work? I don’t think it matters. Is it depressing that the piece is kept in a warehouse crate, or is it cool that the Whitney wants to keep it? Is Danny a failure because he never became the musician that he potentially could have been, or is he a success because he’s a wonderful father?”
These are all rhetorical questions, but the greatness of “The Meyerowitz Stories” hides in how the film guides its characters towards asking them for themselves. In one of the story’s most observant touches, the Meyerowitz sons become amusingly infatuated with one of the residents at the hospital where their dad is recovering. Her name is Pam (Gayle Rankin), and she just happens to be the person on call the day they get there. Matt and Danny grow frantic when they can’t find her, the two men refusing to deal with any of the other caretakers, or to accept the fact that hospital rounds — by definition — mean that residents have to attend to other patients.
For Baumbach, this tiny detail is what inspired him to return to the drama of divorce and start writing what would ultimately become his warmest and most intricate script. “I wanted to write about my experience in a hospital,” he said, “about how the institutional and the personal come into play. I couldn’t stop thinking about that vulnerability, that need Matt and Danny have to believe that Pam only exists to serve their best interests. It’s not dissimilar from how kids need to feel about their parents. The longer you stay in the hospital, the more you start to feel like that person is just working there. Sometimes you start to feel that way about your parents. But they have their own shit to deal with.”
Marvel, who does such a beautiful job of embodying the healthiest of Harold Meyerowitz’s kids, finished off that thought for herself: “We can either carry that bucket of shit for the rest of our lives, or we can try to thank our parents, and forgive them to the best of our ability.” Neither choice is easy, and both are laden with their own obstacles, but “The Meyerowitz Stories” recognizes the value of forging your own path.
“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” opens on Netflix and in select theaters on Friday, October 13th.