November 17, 2018

Artistic Types’ Family Dynamics Spark ‘Meyerowitz Stories’

In the opening scene of “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” oldest child Danny (Adam Sandler) is jockeying for a parking spot on the streets of New York City. Every time he almost finds a spot, it’s too small, or someone else takes it, and his frenzied turns of the steering wheel and screeching expletives at other drivers reach a life-or-death level of intensity.

By his side, his teenage daughter keeps her cool, encouraging him to just pay to park. But Danny won’t pay for parking. He’s convinced that when it comes to finding a place you fit into, the hard way is the right way, even if it kills you.

This is the opening salvo of Noah Baumbach’s latest film, with a stellar cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller and Elizabeth Marvel as members of a complicated family, reuniting around the art show of the pater familias.

Although the film is billed as a comic saga, the laughs found in “Meyerowitz” come with a layer of sadness, where relatable family conflict meets the neglect and the hyper-scrutiny of artistic parents toward their children.

The source of all the family agita is the impressively bearded Hoffman as Harold, an artist who feels he’s not been given the credit he deserves for his life’s work. He lives with his fourth wife, the bohemian Maureen (Thompson, channeling a little of the wackiness of her “Harry Potter” character, Madame Trelawney), who is frenetic and always running away to artist retreats, escaping through alcohol or otherwise avoiding her problems.

Danny’s half-brother, Matthew (Stiller), is emotionally stingy, but his FaceTime calls with his child shed occasional light on the troubled state of his own marriage. The family hints that he could have pursued something more artistic, but the status-obsessed Matthew instead pursued a lucrative career that also benefits him: By removing any art from his professional life, he avoids comparisons to his father.

Danny, a failed musician, is simmering in sadness over the breakup of his marriage; his manic artist daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), is off to college, where she makes student films, some with sexual themes, and sends them to her father, uncle and aunt. 

The Meyerowitzes are the walking wounded, literally and figuratively.

The third Meyerowitz sibling is Danny’s sister (and Matt’s half-sister), Jean, played by Marvel with an introverted, self-effacing, shrinking presence that signifies her trauma way before its specifics are revealed.

The Meyerowitzes are the walking wounded, literally and figuratively. Danny has a significant limp; Matthew has a regular cough that seems as if it might signify a late-breaking illness; and Harold’s recent physical injury catalyzes the siblings for more interaction than any of them wanted.

Despite the family name and the notable Jewish members of the cast, these stories have no specific Jewish content. But the rhythm of the neurotic conversations will feel familiar to many, regardless of their family origin.

Connected by fragile family ties and fragmented by family fractures and unfulfilled expectations, the Meyerowitzes don’t always get the concept of love and support right, but their family loyalty can help to recontextualize selected stories from the past and extend the narrative by crafting new ones.

Produced as a Netflix original, “The Meyerowitz Stories” is available on the streaming service beginning Oct. 13. It also will be in limited release in Los Angeles at The Landmark and the Laemmle Noho.