Noah Baumbach might as well have named his latest feature “The (Harold) Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected, But Also Mostly About Harold),” because no matter how many stories unspool in the filmmaker’s latest tale of familial disaffection (and, occasionally, actual affection), each one spins firmly around Dustin Hoffman’s surly patriarch.
While Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is cleverly divided up into a series of chapters, mostly following the middle-aged mishegoss of Harold’s sons Danny (Adam Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller), it is Harold who looms largest.
The Gruff Patriarch
That he’s basically a bastard — or, to put it more kindly, definitely not a great dad — would be an easy out in any other film, a way to explain why the Meyerowitz kids are so screwy and sad. But Hoffman brings life and levity to Harold that pushes his performance into potential awards territory.
That’s because things take a twist. In the latter half of the film, Hoffman’s role is revealed as that rare two-pronged performance that pushes forward the narrative without resorting to gushy, feel-good character evolutions in order to serve neat storytelling, not actual character growth. First, there’s early Harold, a middling sculptor and narcissist still hoping to make it big and be recognized by the art world, even as he brutally ignores his own children. (Still, it’s a Baumbach film, so all this pain is mostly funny to boot.)
“The Meyerowitz Stories” is rooted in Harold’s own grievances, even though it opens with a beaten down Danny returning home after being basically spit out by life. His father couldn’t care less. Harold isn’t the warm and fuzzy type, and instead greets his hangdog oldest progeny (and his very charming daughter, played by Grace Van Patten) with what appears to be standard behavior: spitting out a slew of big words and complaining about his lot in life. He’s a recognizably gruff man, and Hoffman settles into it easily. But there’s more to Harold, and Baumbach and Hoffman work steadily to pull that out. And, perhaps more jarringly and compellingly, to eventually push it way, way back in.
Sandler came out early with the Oscar buzz after the film bowed at Cannes, and it’s understandable why: he’s great. (Scenes in which he and Hoffman unexpectedly bond over such shared characteristics as being terrible at pool and loving films like “Legal Eagles” are warmly crafted showcases for both men, even as they work in a slightly lower register from the rest of the feature.) So is Stiller, who continues to save his most nuanced performances for Baumbach and their continued collaborations.
But the power of “The Meyerowitz Stories” rests on Hoffman’s patriarch, who anchors the Meyerowitz children who project their hopes and dreams on him, including Elizabeth Marvel’s restrained Jean (who gets one big scene among the many shared by her male counterparts) and Van Patten as his creative successor. That’s when the heartbreak happens.
From the outset, “The Meyerowitz Stories” is loosely organized around Harold’s quest for professional recognition, a desire made worse by the success of his own contemporaries (Judd Hirsch appears throughout the film as a genial fellow sculptor who has made it) and the looming sale of his apartment including many of his works. As the Meyerowitz clan readies for a long-hoped-for exhibit at Harold’s former university — albeit, one he’s insulted by because it’s a faculty show, not a single event dedicated just to him — tragedy strikes, and Harold is forced to reorient his entire existence.
Other films would use such a plot point to give Harold a redemption arc, but Baumbach takes the opposite direction. Instead, Harold recedes into the background, and “The Meyerowitz Stories” became still more invested in chronicling his impact on the rest of his family. Harold is never far away, and neither is Hoffman. “I’m really grateful for what he gave me,” Baumbach said at a recent New York Film Festival press conference. “I can’t imagine many of his contemporaries doing and committing to what you have to do in this movie. It’s not easy for anybody.”
At Cannes, Hoffman made it clear that he was initially reticent to play an older character like Harold, but that he met with his future director a number of times to chat about “both our fathers,” eventually coming to perhaps the most essential component of the film and Harold himself: “We are our father at certain points.”
That’s the battle at the heart of “The Meyerowitz Stories”: will his kids become their father, and would it be so bad if they did (honestly, yes, it would be)? By the end, Hoffman and Baumbach opt for something more revelatory: Harold somehow becomes more himself.
In his final scenes, Hoffman settles firmly into Harold’s big vocabulary and bad attitude, and the price he has to pay for it all. Harold might not get the recognition he deserves, but Hoffman demands it.
“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” debuts on Netflix and in select theaters on October 13.