It has been noted by Noah Baumbach’s partner Greta Gerwig that his cerebral, bittersweet roundelays set out their plots in a single line of dialogue. “Mum and me versus you and Dad,” says a boy to his brother at the start of The Squid and the Whale, a prickly comedy about divorce, though he’s only referring to a doubles tennis match.
“Are you going to let me in?” asks the PA played by Gerwig in Greenberg, a prickly comedy about commitment, though all she’s doing is changing lanes.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) continues the tradition, opening with the shambolic Danny (Adam Sandler) trying to reverse into a Manhattan parking space as he asks: “Am I fitting?” The film shows in painstaking detail why the answer is unlikely ever to be “yes”.
He and his plain-Jane sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) are the overlooked adult children of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a white-bearded sculptor who shuffles around his apartment, bemoaning his more celebrated contemporaries and cooing over his poodle and his flamboyant alcoholic current wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson).
Danny is appalled that his father is considering selling the place, though he only lived there for a year when he was 16, whereas his half-brother, the prosperous West Coast accountant Matthew (Ben Stiller), was raised in the apartment and is trying to rush the sale through. The film is rife with such ironies. In Baumbach’s breakneck script, sentiments are unarticulated, aimed in the wrong direction or mangled into insults.
Matthew complains that his father never made him feel valued, yet Danny and Jean hear nothing from Harold but compliments about him. There’s a collective slump in the room when they ask for his computer password. “Try ‘Matthew’,” Harold mumbles.
No one listens to anyone else. When Matthew takes his father out to lunch, they get through three restaurants without eating anything or hearing a word the other says. A catch-up between Matthew and Danny descends into an awkward farce of second-guessing. The half-siblings spend more time together once Harold is admitted to hospital, looking to strangers for the stable parenting they never got from him.
They are crestfallen when his doctor goes on vacation or their favourite nurse finishes her shift (“I want Pam!”). Dashing off to a meeting, Matthew seeks approval from the staff: “I’m not abandoning him, right?”
Women in the film have the clearer view, with the exception of Maureen, whose free-floating eccentricity extends to disturbing culinary announcements such as: “More shark?” and “I’ve left the necks on.” Matthew’s mother (Candice Bergen) gives the one unambiguous apology in the picture, though the people it would really benefit aren’t there to hear it.
Danny’s daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), bucks the family trend for repression by making sexually explicit short films, while it is Jean who emerges touchingly as the figure least in need of consoling hugs, despite looking as though she’s been flattened by a steamroller.
The literary nature of the title, as well as the chapter headings and the wayward patriarch, suggests we are in the territory of The Royal Tenenbaums. But it is sculpture, film and music, rather than literature, which are the guiding art forms here, with Danny’s compositions for piano providing musical family snapshots from the past.
The Meyerowitz Stories may be produced by Netflix, which treats theatrical distribution much as Harold treats Danny and Jean, but it is deeply cinematic. It’s a talky picture, as befits a film about a father who administers death by a thousand cutting remarks, but the jokes lie as much in Jennifer Lame’s editing, which produces some joltingly abbreviated moments, and in Robbie Ryan’s camera work, which keeps swishing back during a low-speed chase in order to keep tabs on the stragglers.
You need a big screen to savour these effects as well as these performances, particularly Sandler, who discovers deep pockets of vulnerability in his familiar comic rage, and the aptly-named Marvel, who is one.
“The Meyerowitz Stories” is on Netflix and in selected cinemas
This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled