By Henry Shorney (Bould, Colorado, US)
Two weeks ago, as I was scanning through Netflix, Adam Sandler popped up on my television. Just as I was thinking, “o great, just what we need”, I saw the credit, directed by Noah Baumbach. I had flashbacks to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love: Sandler plays a recluse salesman and gives a performance that frankly, nobody thought he was capable of. Despite being immediately attracted to The Meyerowitz Stories because of Sandler playing an uncharacteristic role (anything that temporarily stops him from making another lowbrow comedy), I was still hesitant to watch it. Recently, Baumbach has blessed us with a couple Greta Gerwig collaborations: Mistress America and Francis Ha (possibly his best directorial work yet). Gerwig brought something fresh to Baumbach’s movies. With The Meyerowitz Stories, Baumbach returns to writing alone – hopefully rebounding from his dreadful last solo attempt, While We’re Young. The Meyerowitz Stories is not Baumbach’s best work, but it has its moments – some being created by Baumbach’s directorial techniques. The Meyerowitz Stories is a prime example of Baumbach’s inconsistencies when creating believable characters and relationships between them.
The first chapter, of four, sets up the characters and their relationships. This chapter is named after Adam Sandler’s character, Danny. The chapter begins with Danny and his daughter Eliza trying to find a parking spot. He is getting gradually more frustrated, all while conversing with his daughter. This sequence fails to develop a believable relationship between Eliza and Danny. The dialogue comes off as manipulative and out of place. Throughout the entire movie it feels like Eliza and Danny’s relationship is being forced upon you. Baumbach can be dead on when it comes to establishing characters relationships through dialogue, but in this case it was not successful.
Another relationship the movie revolves around is between Danny and his father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman). It is clear what type of character Harold is going to be from his first line of dialogue. He is the father figure that Baumbach seems to create in nearly all his movies – possibly modeled after his own father. Harold is a completely self-absorbed sculptor, who constantly patronizes anyone he is in the room with. His relationship with Danny is based around Danny’s incomprehensible admiration for him. This relationship is nearly identical to Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Walt’s (Jesse Eisnberg) relationship in The Squid and the Whale. This is exemplified by similar sequences in both movies. The Squid and the Whale opens with a tennis scene where Walt is replicating his father’s anger. The scene is truly funny and sets up the relationship the rest of the film revolves around. On the other hand, in a montage sequence in The Meyerowitz Stories, a shot of Danny swearing at a pool table is followed by a shot of Harold breaking his pool stick. This sequence comes off as obnoxiously obvious character development and an attempt for a cheap laugh.
Although the relationship between Danny and Harold fails at times, the character of Harold is a spectacular construction. He can go from making you laugh, to bringing you to tears, at the drop of a pin. He transforms from a self-absorbed artist into a withering old man. It’s incredible to watch Harold completely warp physically and stay exactly the same mentally. It is Baumbach’s creation of character and Dustin Hoffman’s stunning performance that create the absurdly real character of Harold. It is not a surprise that Hoffman fit the role of Harold so well: Baumbach claimed to have had Hoffman in mind while creating the character (Betancourt 12).
Jean is another character introduced in this first dinner scene. Jean is the droll, sarcastic sister of Danny. She is extremely likeable and her jokes are always on point. Just like Harold, her character is well developed from the first scene she is in: after coming around the corner she says, “I could tell dad wanted to say hi to you guys by himself”. This establishes Jeans place in the movie. She tags alongside Danny and stays out of the conflict.
The last sibling who is not physically present at the dinner, but is always a topic of conversation, is Matthew (Ben Stiller). Matthew is Danny and Jean’s half-brother. Harold makes it extremely clear from the start that Matthew is his favorite. Matthew does not show up until around a third into the movie. This is when the second chapter (titled Matthew) begins. He is a business man – much to his father’s dismay – and has done everything in his power to stay away from the man that raised him. Baumbach effectively uses Matthew as the “normal” character in a family of “crazy” people. It is a privilege to watch how his character develops and deteriorates in the presence of his family.
After the characters are introduced, Baumbach uses the repetition of behaviors to further develop his characters. It is widely said in screenwriting that characters are what they do, not what they say. Baumbach can be obsessed with his dialogue at times, but he also knows how to reveal characters through action. Throughout the movie Danny will repeat behaviors that Harold has previously repeated himself. This shows Danny’s desire to be like his father while also continuing a comedic bit. In Baumbach’s movies even the smallest details will repeat themselves throughout the movie. In a pre Meyerowitz Stories interview, Baumbach expressed his appreciation for Scorsese’s After Hours (Fretts). After Hours exhibits a mastery of repetition of details that Baumbach clearly draws from and tries to replicate.
Baumbach has good reason to be obsessed with his dialogue. It never fails to be witty and quotable (epitomized in his first movie, Kicking and Screaming). A shining example of dialogue in this movie is when Harold asks his wife (a flat character defined by her drinking),
“Where is the gourmet hummus?”
To which his wife casually responds, “Upstairs”.
Then, there is a long pause followed by Harold saying, “Why?”
This is exactly the mundane, but somehow deeply clever dialogue we have come to expect from Baumbach. Dialogue can help add to a good movie, but it has to be supplementary to the story, otherwise the narrative will drag (anyone see The Hateful Eight?).
Although not necessarily known for his directorial capabilities, Baumbach utilizes some interesting filmic techniques in The Meyerowitz Stories. At the end of the opening scene, It hard cuts from Danny yelling, to Danny and Eliza calmly walking up the stairs; this effectively creates a humorous contrast between the two scenes. Baumbach continues to use this hard cut technique throughout the movie.
One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is created by Baumbach’s directing. It is a spectacularly shot chase scene where Matthew and Harold are running after a man they think stole Harold’s coat. The camera pans against Danny and Harold’s movement from across the street. The flat background and silly movement of the actors seems to come straight out of a Wes Anderson movie (maybe something he picked up while working on Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic). Baumbach should fill his movies with more visually interesting scenes like these and less scenes of people sitting around talking.
When it comes to making movies about well-off white people, Baumbach is a genius in many ways. However, they are still just movies about well-off white people. When Baumbach collaborates with other filmmakers who have innovative ideas (Anderson, Gerwig), great things can come about.
Betancourt, M. Noah Baumbach, “The Meyerowitz Stories“. Back Stage, 58(41), 2017, pp. 12-12.
Fretts, B. For ‘Mistress America,’ Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig Serve Screwball with a Whiff of Menace. New York: New York Times Company. 2015.