The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Netflix, 2017)

As steaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.     

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

Netflix

Director: Noah Baumbach

Writer: Noah Baumbach

      During a Cannes press conference for Magnolia, PT Anderson said he wanted to work with Adam Sandler for his next film. Reporters laughed–an acclaimed independent filmmaker, being eager to work with The Waterboy? But three years later, Punch Drunk Love was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and Anderson won the festival’s Best Director award. It was Sandler’s first film to play at Cannes. Despite some dabbling in ‘serious’ roles, it would be 15 years until another Sandler film played at Cannes. The Meyerowitz Stories (News and Selected) would make a splash at Cannes, but in a very different way from Punch Drunk Love.

      Along with Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories was one of two Netflix films to compete at Cannes in 2017. While The Meyerowitz Stories did have a limited theatrical release in the US, it was effectively blocked from French theaters by a law stipulating that films that play in French theaters cannot appear on streaming services for three years. Films lacking a French theatrical release proved controversial at Cannes, which ultimately decided to adopt a rule that films in competition would have to “commit…to being distributed in French movie theaters.”  Out of competition streaming films were still technically welcome, but as of 2018 Netflix had pulled all of its films from Cannes.

       The question of Netflix films being as “legitimate” as theatrical releases is a big one right now, and is central to this column. Until very recently, non-theatrical films were cheap cast-offs, that simply couldn’t get theatrical distribution. Then Netflix started throwing big budgets behind their original movies, as theater audiences were shrinking, and almost overnight, that began to change. Netflix and HBO are the only non-theatrical distributor that has the pockets to back high-quality films. HBO has largely set their eyes on what are essentially prestige versions of typical tv movies–contained character pieces, light on action, but with A-list stars like Al Pacino. Netflix is taking on all genres–blockbuster action, romantic comedy, oddball indie, etc. If there is anything holding Netflix back, it’s that they cast too wide a net, with no quality control.  Hence this column: Sometimes Netflix is a repository for films that would’ve been straight to VHS in a different era, arriving unheralded on a Blockbuster shelf. Sometimes Netflix picks up smaller, less conventional films that would be swept aside by major studios increasingly focused on massive opening weekend numbers. The Meyerowitz Stories is the latter.

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       Adam Sandler plays Danny Meyerowitz, one of three children–along sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and younger brother Matthew (Ben Stiller)–of sculpture artist Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman). Harold wan an up and coming artist from the 1970’s, who never quite came up. He rejects his obscurity as due to art world politics, and/or critics not quite getting him–”undiscovered artist” is the term used in the film, as opposed to “obscure artist”–and quietly yet firmly insists on his self-appointed status as a major artist. Danny is sending his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to Bard College, where Harold taught for several years before retiring, and going through a divorce; he and his wife had decided to stay together until Eliza went to school, largely out of Danny’s fear of that a divorce would mean being as distant from her as Harold was to him and Jean. Danny is moving in with Harold and his stepmother Maureen (Emma Thompson),  Harold 4th wife, a scatterbrained hippie that apparently comes from a wealthy family. Maureen is a mere seven years older than Harolds’ daughter Jean.

       Danny and Jean are the most invested in their relationship with their father, despite–or really, because of–his clear disinterest in them.  Harold dismisses Danny’s brief attempt at a music career, bemoaning that, prior to Eliza studying film, there were no other artists in the family, and is openly contemptuous of Danny having been a househusband during his marriage. Jean is the Peggy Schuyler of the family, a dependable background player taken for granted. Harold’s favorite child is Matthew, a successful business manager in Los Angeles. Harold, on Matthew’s advice, has decided to sell his home in the city, and relocate to Maureen’s cabin upstate. Harold is dismissive of Danny’s opinion of the sell, even as Danny moves in with him.

Sandler’s performance got the most notice, largely because seeing do a dramatic performance is still a novelty. While Punch Drunk Love was a dramatic take on Sandler’s angry man-child in search of love films, The Meyerowitz Stories plays with Sandler’s penchant for bumbling fathers. His Danny sort of stumbles passively through life, animated with a desire to help his family and unsure how else to express himself. Sandler’s ability to turn over the top the yelling into a joke is used when Danny’s rage rises up, in short bursts during traffic jams and a heated argument during Harold’s hospitalization. A more “serious” actor might’ve done too much with the anger aspect, and played the character as disturbed in a way Sandler avoids. The flip side is that a climatic argument, with more cutting insults instead of screaming, feels a little flat, as if Sandler isn’t entirely sure how to play a more personal anger.

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       Matthew hangs over half of the film as unseen presence, the favored prodigal son with no interest in returning. Harold complains about the lack or artists in the family, but then in the next breath brags about Matthews’ financial success as a business manager, the least artistic job imaginable. Matthew texts with the rest of the family, but hasn’t spoken to Danny in years, and Matthews’ presumed judgement is almost palpable, the distant son favored by the distant father. When Matthew does appear, he isn’t entirely the rich jerk viewers may have been anticipating, but he’s not much of a subversion, either.

       Matthew is quick to correct others that Danny and Jean are his half-siblings, and dreads spending time with his father–a dread informed by a lifetime of enduring his father passive-aggressively lashing out against the world. Harold’s naked desire for somebody to follow in footsteps informs Matthew’s ongoing rebellion. Matthew has gotten as far away from the New York art scene as possible, as a deliberate rejection of his father. Matthews’ story is that of a middle-aged man, with a family of his own, realizing that he’s been running away from home his entire life, defined by his opposition of his father. An adult learning lessons he should have learned as a teenage is harder to make sympathetic than many writers seem to realize, but Matthew distancing himself from the family is framed as an unsympathetic and immature action. He whines to his father “Danny and Jean got your disinterest, but I got your focus, and that fucked me up in a different way,” a line that would be narcissitic on its own, but here, where we see how Harold’s disinterest affected Danny and Jean, it reeks of solipsism. Harolds’ desire for a heir to follow in his footsteps may have pushed Matthew away from art, but Matthew was able to succeed on his own terms. Yet Matthew still feels a sting of hostility from his father–not the disappointment directed towards Danny, but a sort of jealousy that Matthew found success in his chosen field, something that eluded Harold. Matthew wants to put his issues with his father behind him, but is still driven by a desire to show that he has “beaten” him in some way.

       The Meyerowitz Stories is a version of the Personal Failings of the Great Artist narrative, but without the greatness. Harolds’ career in art has been surpassed by his contemporaries, illustrated when Harold and Danny attend the opening of Harolds’ old friend LJ Shaprio (Judd Hirsch) show at the MoMA. LJ is surrounded by manager and buyers and celebrities, almost of all of whom are politely confused when introduced to Harold. His chosen field, sculpture, is abstract enough to neutralize viewers from forming an opinion on the quality of Harold’s work–the only time any of Harold’s art is even center frame is at an art show in the latter half of the movie, and even then the focus is on the characters standing next to the piece. Without the supposed greatness of Harolds’ art, we are left with an artist who was so caught up in his art that his family life suffered and his relationship with his children strained. The quality of Harold’s art is a non-factor–the people interested in buying the house are also interested in the artwork (and some of the furniture) but plan on donating it to various retirement homes. There is no redemption in making art, no “…but look at the beauty he created!” just a strained relationship with his children, based more on a sense of obligation than anything else.

      When Harold ends up in the hospital, and the doctors advise the family to begin preparing their goodbyes, Danny, Jean, and Matthew all confront their unresolved feelings towards their father, and how that has affected their relationship with their own children. Danny takes great pride in how close he and Eliza are, while Matthew feels a disconnect his own 5-year old son. Danny had thrown himself into family, and longs for his father’s approval. Matthew rejected his fathers attempt to raise a double, but is at a loss on what would be a good way to bond with a child.

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       Jean’s big scene is when she recounts an incident from when she was a teenager, and one of Harold’s artist friends watched her use an outdoor shower in a swimsuit, and masturbated in front of her. The scene itself is interesting–a monologue filmed in one take, Jean walking in circles, avoiding eye contact with Danny and Matthew. But the revelation comes to nothing, and is almost actively ignored the rest of the film. Jean says that she told their father, who advised that as long he didn’t touch her or do it again, to let it go. Danny and Matthew bash up the sexual miscreants car, but the issue of Harold’s complicity in the matter is never broached, even after his recovery. In a later scene, Danny even says “there was no one unforgivable act” their father committed, apparently sidestepping Jeans revelation completely. It’s an odd plot detour, that probably should’ve been cut.

      Following Harold’s miraculous recovery, Danny and Matthew reassess their relationship with Harold, to different ends. Matthew realizes how his obsession with his father was hurting his relationships to the rest of his family, and offers Danny a place to stay in LA while he plans to spend more time with his son. Harold asks Danny to stay in New York while he recovers, but Danny is more aware of how Harold is treating him like as assistant, and no longer feels obligated to put his father’s whims above his own needs.

       The Meyerowitz Stories is very much a Noah Baumbach film, of well-heeled New Yorkers making their way through an artistic subculture. Personally, I’ve never stepped foot east of Colorado, but I grew up in middle class suburbs and went to art school, so I have a bit more tolerance for the sort of rich-kid artist sub-genre this film resembles. A lot of New York Artists Have Problems, Too films are made with blinders on, produced by fresh out of film school wealthy New Yorkers that got their parents or parents rich friends to finance a movie about depressed writers. Of the two Baumbach films I’ve seen, this and Frances Ha, there is more of an awareness of money–Frances Ha is about a New York hipster that is essentially homeless because she can’t afford an apartment by herself; in this film, Harold sells the home he’s lived in for decades because of rising cost of living in New York City–and characters that act like real people, who have lived full lives and not recent college graduates depressed because they aren’t immediately successful. However, it is still of a certain New York elite–there are MoMA openings to attend, and fretting about being invited to private parties after said MoMA opening. Eliza attending the university where her grandfather taught for several years is treated as a mere coincidence–and may just be an attempt to simplify the script by including only one university–but comes across as far more privileged and nepotistic than is probably intended.

      The Meyerowitz Stories is art and family, but with enough humor to keep from spiraling into pretentiousness. Or maybe I have a higher tolerance for pretentious. If you aren’t immediately turned off by the concept of a middle-aged business manager harboring resentment against his artist/college professor father, this is worth a watch.

 

Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Hidden Gem