All Happy Families Are Alike

Part I

Midway through the 70th Cannes Film Festival, the focus has veered sharply away from missing persons to domestic entanglements: or put another way, from people who have checked out of your life – voluntarily or involuntarily – to those you have no choice but to coexist with.

It’s always difficult living in the shadow of a famous parent, but what if that parent isn’t exactly the genius you always thought he was? That question hugs the core of Noah Baumbach’s star-studded Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which arrived yesterday. No stranger to the festival circuit (Greenberg and Frances Ha both debuted in Berlin) , Baumbach was in Cannes for the very first time with what is arguably most New Yorkish film to date. Starring a bearded Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz, sculptor, retired professor and the pater of a very fractured familias, the film treads similar territory as Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), albeit with entirely different results. Harold Meyerowitz’s children – from three separate marriages – Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), have all defined themselves in one way or another in opposition to their overbearing, egocentric father. Baumbach breaks the film into episodes that shift the narrative focus. Meyerowitz is being released by Netflix, but there’s no question of it being cut up into shorter segments; if anything, the interpolation of white title cards seems little more than a formal stunt to give the film a literary and literate feel. This aspiration is evident in the crisp dialogue and careful delivery, especially by Hoffman. When a neighbor at a restaurant starts to absentmindedly pile his things on Harold’s table, Hoffman shudders, “How brazen!”

Much of the film plays out like a collaboration between Woody Allen and Whit Stillman: a fusion of Jewish and WASPy New York sensibilities. Harold invariably rakes everyone over coals, including his old friend, L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch in a pitch-perfect cameo), a sculptor with a show at MoMA (Harold’s claim to fame, by contrast, is that he’s got work – one work, that is – at the Whitney, although the museum may have lost it).  He picks fights, holds grudges and misremembers crucial details about his children’s upbringings. His current wife – his forth, by my count – Maureen (Emma Thompson) is an aging flower child with a drinking problem who leaves Harold alone a lot to travel to the Easter Islands and such places. Neither Danny nor Jean seem to be doing all that much with their lives, but Matthew is a successful financial consultant in Los Angeles and the only Meyerowitz child to have escaped their father’s stranglehold.

In a film that curiously seems less than the sum of its parts, Stiller’s performance provides a startling dose of dramatic richness and complexity. So much of the film is about the havoc that family dysfunction wreaks in banal, quotidian ways. Matthew’s extemporized, ravaged toast at an exhibit at Bard College is shot through with emotional courage and honesty. It’s the closest that any of the damaged Meyerowitz’ – and us, by extension – get to catharsis.

 

Part II: Agamemnon in Suburbia 

Part III: Funnier Games

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