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The Meyerowitz Stories: Adam Sandler discovers vulnerability

The film may be produced by Netflix, but it is deeply cinematic.

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

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist