I had never been particularly interested in the films of Noah Baumbach, because I’ve never been that interested in watching neurotic upper-class white families argue over the petty little dramas in their lives. When it’s done with particular flair, such as The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s not so bad. But just watching unsympathetic people lament the little failures and disappointments of their fairly cushy lives does not, in its basic form, appeal to me. And I assumed that Baumbach’s previous films, like Margot at the Wedding or The Squid and the Whale, were in that vein. Having watched The Meyerowitz Stories I concede I might have been mistaken.
Yes, this movie is 100% about fairly unsympathetic upper class white people moaning and bitching about lives that most other people in the world would kill to have. But it’s done with such skill that you hardly even notice. Indeed, their loathsome qualities somehow get kind of turned around to become endearing, even sympathetic by the end.
This may be in large part due to the exceptional quality of the cast. Dustin Hoffman plays the patriarch of the Meyerowitz family, Harold, an art professor whose work has never been acknowledged by the art world at large while his contemporaries went on to great fame. Harold is the epitome of everything wrong with the upper crust of American society - he is privileged, arrogant, self-centered, unaware of anything or anyone outside himself, insecure, and completely handicapped by his own personal failures. Yet, instead of owning up to his disappointments in life and perhaps learning from them or growing or doing something constructive, he takes them out on his kids, and lives in a fantasy land in which all interactions are reinterpreted through the lens of his own self-delusion. Every negative interaction becomes someone else’s fault, and every throwaway comment is spun to be a ringing endorsement of his work, his life philosophy and of him as a person. I don’t care for characters like this, domineering yet weak and strangled by delusions about themselves, because they remind me of my own grandmother who was quite similar and not very fun to be around. I certainly would never want to inflict upon anyone else the experience of spending the weekend at her house in Vermont.
But Baumbach finesses this unlikable central character, not by softening him, but by creating sympathetic portrayals of his children, the ones most heavily impacted by his narcissistic shortcomings. Adam Sandler plays Danny, the oldest son and a washed-up musician. As always when he plays serious roles, Sandler shows that when he wants to he can mine this strange hang-doggedness that makes him both charming and pathetic at the same time. Ben Stiller plays the youngest son Matthew, a successful West Coast account manager for celebrities who still feels unfulfilled. Elizabeth Marvel plays Jean, the middle sister, who is kind of mousey and traumatized and almost not-there. Their entire lives, the images they hold of themselves have been shaped by the expectations and casual neglect of their father, and their responses to his influence have helped determine what kind of unhappy people they have becomes - incapable of maintaining relationships and often quite poor human beings.
There is a funny thing that Harold does, which is when someone is talking to him he simply talks over them and ignores everything they say. This exact same trait then pops up in Danny, not because he wants to or means to be an asshole, but because he doesn’t really know how to be better. Thankfully the film is not really about any Come To Jesus moment, where these characters realize they are bad people and suddenly become paragons of virtue, but merely about how they deal with the messy circumstances of their lives and their upbringing and their complicated relationships with their father.
This works because the writing, I think, is pretty self-aware about what kind of characters these are, and the actors are very, very good, so they can spin these people not as one-dimensional losers but as people who don’t really know how to do better but are at least kind of trying. There are also a lot of pretty funny moments in the film, not laugh-out-loud funny but funny in a “oh that’s clever” kind of way. By the end you start feeling sort of sorry for the Meyerowitz clan, and that should be considered a positive achievement for the film.
I also liked the narrative structure. It’s told in short vignettes that focus on one family member at a time as they deal with various crises or events. This gives each character their own space to develop, and for us to understand where they are coming from, without being weighed down by the demands of an overarching plot. For a film like this, that is essential, and plot is mostly irrelevant. What’s important is that the characters come across as more than just their circumstances or their shortcomings, but as fully realized people and I think the movie succeeds at that.
So what does this tell us? It tells us that even a film about unlikable spoiled white people can be good if the writing and the acting is strong enough. And maybe I should give The Squid and the Whale a look.