We have a story in my family. I was three years old and grappling with the crisis of identity and insane jealousy that accompanied the new baby sister in my orbit. It must have been October because a small pumpkin was within my small reach. I seized said pumpkin and hurled it at said little sister, but my aim was poor, clouded by rage, hindered by underdeveloped hand-eye coordination. The pumpkin struck my father, who was rocking her to sleep, instead. As you may imagine, this did not end well for me. Now, nearly 30 years later, I like to think everyone has moved on. We can all laugh about it, right? My sister and I are great friends. My father and I remain close, speaking openly and often, but never about this fateful day in 1988. Childhood stories have a way of becoming lore, legend, a defining moment in a young life, even when — especially when — you have no real recollection of the event. They come to mean more in the retelling (and with interpretive CliffsNotes) than they ever could in real life.
And that leads us into the The Meyerowitz Stories.
The patriarch of the Meyerowitzes is Harold (Dustin Hoffman, “Boychoir”). The moderately successful artistic pursuits of this sculptor and retired Bard College professor, coupled with the short story structure of the film, lay the foundation for its exploration of the way in which history and perception become intertwined with identity and how people often cling to an idea of themselves, be it objective fact or socially constructed fiction. The film, which features the extraordinary cast of Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, and Adam Sandler (exercising welcomed restraint, i.e., more “Punch Drunk Love” than “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”) is a poignant, funny reflection on the stories that get told (over and over and over again) and how they sculpt who we are.
Noah Baumbach (“Mistress America”) affords his characters the space to be boring and redundant, endearing and ill-mannered. Their droll repetitions and inconsistent accounts (“You should see the other dog” or “Famous blueberry pancakes”) are played for laughs, saving The Meyerowitz Stories from succumbing to boring redundancy. The audience learns the familiar familial beats and rhythms. The monotony of this family, who continue to tell the same stories and convey an oral history especially to and about one another, mirrors the monotonous nature of daily life. The characters are also redundant by nature, entering the state of being no longer needed or useful.
While the audience is treated to some of Harold’s abstract pieces and Bard has offered him a place within a shared exhibition, his family is the career retrospective prominently on display. Matthew, Jean and Danny — with varying degrees of success — are his life’s work. Amid Harold’s advancing age and declining health, the Meyerowitzes have gathered together to exchange notes and air grievances. By definition, a retrospective is both an exhibition showing the development of the work of an artist over a period of time and the act of looking back on past events or situations. The latest feature in Baumbach’s oeuvre is distinctly more interested in his characters’ experiences with the latter.
Harold Meyerowitz’s eldest, Danny (Sandler), is a failed musician-cum-stay at home dad to a college-bound daughter. He self-admittedly quit playing piano in protest, presumably of his father’s simultaneous insistence on creative pursuits and inability to share the artistic spotlight. Danny continues to protest against Harold’s abandonment in being a loving and devoted father to Eliza (Grace Van Patten, “Central Park”). Although, the opening chapter of Eliza dropping him off at Harold’s on her way to Bard makes it apparent that he is the one in need of caregiving. Throughout The Meyerowitz Stories, Danny performs on the piano old songs he wrote about the family. These Meyerowitz and Meyerowitz compositions (also written by Sandler), which were inspired by acute nostalgia, have the effect of reframing the family stories from painful and embarrassing memories to melodic recollections. They are the family’s oral (and aural) histories. Randy Newman’s score is the perfect accompaniment.
It is easy to draw symbolic comparisons between the half brothers (they have different mothers). His and Matthew’s rants — cut off mid-expletive — bookend the early chapters. Danny is prone to excessive outbursts, flying off the handle at the slightest street parking struggle, but unable to muster the appropriate level of rage for his father’s abandonment and indiscretions. Three-quarters through the film, during a commemorative speech, Harold’s youngest and prodigal son, Matthew (Stiller, “Brad’s Status”), admits to being angry at his father most of his adult life. “I guess I was trying to outrun him, but I didn’t. I’m still his son.” That elusive inclination to outrun a suffocating family does not stop the Meyerowitzes from trying in a series of increasingly hysterical (running) sight gags. The film posits that family is impossible to outrun. It always catches up with you. Danny’s resentments manifest in a limp that becomes “worse after I’ve been sitting,” further illustrating the significance of gathering momentum and moving forward.
Danny’s daughter Eliza is an aspiring filmmaker. When the family gathers around a laptop to screen her latest project, Danny praises the film’s “wonderful mise en scène.” Equal praise could be bestowed on the third chapter of The Meyerowitz Stories entitled “The Group Show.” The scenes of the three Meyerowitz siblings, who are reunited for the first time in years, are structured with a depth and dimension comparable to that of a Harold Meyerowitz original. The audience is treated to a montage of beautifully framed shots of the siblings gathering for a piano singalong (one of Danny’s, of course), peruse the gift shop offerings, sit around playing cards, and wander through the woods.
Danny, Matthew and Jean redevelop their rapport and fall back into familiar rhythms, which unfortunately for Jean (Marvel, “A Most Violent Year”), means her story is presented late in the film and relegated to the sidelines. Her title card is only a parenthetical (the most superfluous and supplementary of punctuation). Jean suffers from being the only girl in this family, besides Harold’s series of wives. She also suffers from a previously undisclosed trauma. When her protective brothers gallantly reframe her story, they feel better, proactive and moving forward, but Jean is “still fucked up.” Being the odd man out, and sometimes just plain odd, has insulated her from the hangups burdening her brothers. Of a cameo in one of Eliza’s films, Jean claims she was “well edited.” In subsequent retellings of our stories, may we all be so lucky.