Review and Theme Analysis for The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected
“We all have this gap between who we are and who we think we are, between who we are and the dream of who we might be, who we want to be,” said Noah Baumbach concerning his new Netflix original film: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). In it, Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young) explores the dysfunctions of an aging family unit as they try desperately to work through their grievances with the past, and with one another.
The setting, the story, even the title itself, which sounds like something off of a Sufjan Stevens record, is both swallowed up by and pays homage to its postmodern, “Art House” culture. The movie is as advertised: selected snippets of the Meyerowitz family and their dysfunctional relationships. It certainly doesn’t abide by any sort of Hero’s Journey formula, but make no mistake, these selected stories are not chosen at random with an attempt to pretentiously or absurdly confuse their audience. These stories, centered around the children of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), are all part of a single, congruent narrative that beautifully weaves together powerful themes of regret, bitterness, longing, and neglect.
Danny Meyerowitz Was Trying to Park
Newly separated from his wife, Danny Meyerowitz (played by Adam Sandler) is driving he and his daughter Eliza (Grace van Patten) to his father Harold’s house in Manhattan. (I’d call it an apartment personally, but then I’ve never owned a place in Manhattan, so…) They are having dinner as a family before Eliza heads off to Bard College as a freshman, where her grandfather taught art for more than thirty years.
The relationship between Danny and Eliza is some of the sweetest, most authentic father-daughter on-screen chemistry I’ve seen in a long time. Between their pithy banter while Sandler searches for parking, screaming at other New York drivers that dare get in his way, to their lovely harmonies when they sing together on the family piano, we are given a plethora of special moments between these two characters. The “conversations between generations” is something (I’m told) Baumbach excels at in his films, and though I’m not too familiar with his body of work, The Meyerowitz Stories is more than enough proof of his prowess.
The Meyerowitz family is very artistic. This tradition is carried on down the family. Harold had a successful career as a visual artist, but is hung up on the fact that his friend LJ (Judd Hirsch) has achieved far more fame and admiration that he ever could. Danny, on top of dealing with a fresh separation, turns out to have been an unemployed musician for quite some time. Apparently he never did anything with his talents except write a few charming songs to be played on the family piano. Eliza is now continuing the hereditary niche by way of directing and starring in overtly ridiculous, pornographic Art House films.
“Have you thought about getting a job?…I think you’d feel better about yourself. Have you thought about playing music again?”
Resentment and neglect start to rear their heads when they go to LJ’s showing, and Harold gets his face pressed up against the glass to the life he should have had. He’s snubbed by all the high-society folk as though he were a commoner! But seriously, being ignored amongst your peers is a very hurtful thing. Resentment from Danny for years and years of neglect also bubble to the surface and the night goes awry.
Danny: I’d like to come if that’s alright. It would be a real treat for me.
Harold: I think they’re filled up…L J’s getting me a special spot.
Though it’s like pulling emotionally distant teeth, Danny is eventually allowed to attend the fancy gala with his father. Even on such a celebratory occasion though—complete with a wonderful cameo of one of my favorite actresses—the Meyerowitz boys can’t seem to let their resentment toward life go, and the evening is ruined.
Matt’s Story: Go Forth and Multiply…
Harold is currently remarried to his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) who is a chronic drinker. And although she seems to share in a loving relationship with Harold, she feels understandably distant from the rest of the extended family, who we are then introduced to.
Enter Harold’s other son Matt (Ben Stiller) from his first marriage. Matt is a successful architect visiting from LA for some meetings, including a delightful luncheon segment with his stubbornly pretentious father to talk about selling his estate. As they wander around a New York City Neighborhood in search of a restaurant that’s ‘up to Harold’s standards,’ we start to see why Matt chose to live across the country.
“I’ll have the steak and the Market salad. We don’t have a ton of time so if you could bring everything at once…”
It’s hinted that Matt’s mother was the love of Harold’s life, and Matt, who is a symbol of that love, was showered with a lot of unwanted attention and pressure growing up. Apparently, even being the favorite child of a successful artist puts a lot on a kid. Nothing comes without cost.
“I got your focus and that fucked me up in a whole other way… It doesn’t matter that I make money, because you don’t respect what I do.”
Scenes between characters, whether it’s parents, siblings, half-siblings, step-parents, or a combination, all feel very scattered and emotionally vacant, but it’s by design. They only have distant memories and vague connections to one another as they must suddenly navigate their way through understanding that their father may not have long to live.
Artists and The Berkshires
Early in the film we are given some exposition. A: Harold is being asked to present art at Bard for a faculty alumni showing. B: Harold suffered a blow to the head on a trail in the Berkshires. Wouldn’t you know it, these two plots intersect when Harold is forced to miss his art showing after suffering severe head trauma from the injury. The aging patriarch is rushed to a hospital in Pittsfield (the very hospital I was born in, actually). It was admittedly challenging to be even slightly objective during this segment as the estranged half-siblings and step-mothers and granddaughters all frantically rush to their summer home in order to be with Harold. They all feared the worst.
I’ve resisted the urge for the most part in this review, but I’d like to delve into why this film struck such a chord with me. Half of it takes place in my home of the Berkshires, where artists have the potential to learn, grow, and thrive with their craft. It’s not filmed on location here or anything, which is actually fine for us Shirefolk because we don’t like our peace disturbed. But see, this film bothered to actually take the time to acknowledge the Berkshire’s contribution to the arts by bringing the characters there in a script all about the art world.
Now, speaking of the film’s theme of resentment, there happens to be an undercurrent of cultural unrest and resentment in the Berkshires. When wealthy New Yorkers buy up summer homes in prime locations up here, it throws the housing market out of whack (i.e., the Meyerowitz family). What used to be a thriving agricultural area and industrial center has now, in many places, either fallen into decline or become a seasonal getaway for exorbitantly wealthy New Yorkers. Putting it simply, it’s hard to have a house in the Berkshires if you work in the Berkshires. Cultural gentrification, if you will.
But on the other hand, many of these wealthy people are generous donors to the arts, which I am heavily involved in. They stimulate local businesses, keep theaters alive with their patronage, and have a general love and appreciation for conserving the culture and natural beauty of the region. To me, (and others, I’d imagine) seeing aspects of your home depicted on film is very special when done well.
Normally I cringe when films try to namedrop my region in order to gain generic culture points, but Meyerowitz Stories does more than that. On a humanistic and personal level, it spoke volumes that it understood “City folk” aren’t just here to clog up our hiking trails. They come here to enjoy the pleasures of art, escape the grind, and sometimes, sadly, to say goodbye to their loved ones. The regional issues are of course more complex than I’m letting on and shouldn’t be simply dismissed because of an Art House film, but it was hard to ignore the sentiment of van Patten’s performance as she wept at her grandfather’s bedside.
Yes, there is also a third child. Jean is technically present throughout the entirety of the film, but she is purposefully sidelined for almost all of the dramatic moments, which parallels her struggle as the most neglected child. Soft-spoken and reserved, her story in the film comes towards the end of the second act.
When Harold’s friend Paul comes to visit him in the hospital, Jean bolts into the woods. She recalls a summer vacation when she was in an outdoor shower and this Paul character was watching her and masturbating. She told her father, but he was complacent. She describes the incident in the same monotone, nostalgic way that she remembers watching Three’s Company, taking a ferry to the house from the other side of the island (because nobody would pick her up), and swimming in the ocean. It’s quite tragic.
Her father’s neglect has probably thrown her into countless traumatic experiences, as well as given Jean the most reason to resent him, and resent the rest of the Meyerowitz clan for that matter. But she has chosen to be resilient and forgive rather than focus on all her painful memories.
“Because I’m a decent person. Even though he never took care of us, it’s what you do. Besides, I like hanging out with you guys.”
Her brothers, feeling very protective of their sister, consider the best course of action to take against an 80-year-old man who once exposed himself to their sister. The revenge, though farcical and fun to watch, is definitely considered an instance of “misplaced do-goodery.” Jean is not happy. Jean did not ask them to take vengeance on an old man with dementia who has come to say goodbye to an old friend.
The emotional abandonment of the siblings is paralleled in the hospital when every time they feel comfortable and trusting of a medical professional, that professional disappears. Pam the nurse was around when Harold seemed to be doing fine, then when his situation worsens, and a new male nurse takes over. He bares the brunt of their confusion and frustration as they’re handed pamphlets about grief. Likewise, when Dr. Soni carefully outlines the plan to induce Harold into a coma, which offers some measure of relief to the three children, Soni immediately tells them that she’s going to be in China for three weeks. Any chance of having stability during their time at the hospital will be slim to none, because, well, that’s how hospitals work.
Matthew: It doesn’t feel fair, Dr. Soni. That you can just live your life normally while our dad is lying here.
Dr. Soni: Maybe it isn’t.
I Love you, I Forgive You, Forgive Me, Thank You, Goodbye…
The film plays with this interesting cutting technique where various scenes reach a character’s moment of emotional explosion, and then they hard cut it to the next scene. It’s a subtle touch to let the audience know how typical it is for these characters to throw their inhibitions to the wind and scream out in frustration. After an explosive argument between Matt and Danny ends in violence (again the cut is made right as the scene reaches fisticuffs), Matt stands before the art patrons at his father’s showing with a bloody nose, ready to give a speech about his father’s accomplishments. But it turns into an emotionally charged farce as he starts to work out all of his childhood issues into the microphone. What he would give for a chance to make things right…
The last theme with Harold’s children, a theme that has been fomenting under the surface and is brought to the forefront by Jean, is forgiveness. It’s the thing that all three of them have been working towards their whole life. The thing they most struggle with. Baumbach has created a cast of raw, troubled, yet deeply sympathetic characters. The subtlety of the emotion behind dialogue combined with myriad amounts of little character quirks that each actor brings to each role is worth the watch on its own merit.
Overall, this is a brilliantly layered, touching family film. And not “family film” in the sense that you can put your kids in front of it and space out for a couple hours. But rather, that in that we all deal with our own versions of “fucked up family drama,” and it’s refreshing when artists hit that nail right on the head. I’m not as familiar with Baumbach’s other films, but I can safely say that he’s just found an unabashed fan in me. I look forward to diving deeper into his body of work.