The introspective comedies of Noah Baumbach have established him as one of the most distinctive voices working in American cinema today. Recently his films have been populated by millennials and gen-xers feeling their way though life’s existential and emotional choices as if they’d misplaced the instruction manual.
Films like While We’re Young, Greenberg, Frances Ha, and Mistress America (the latter three all starring his muse and significant other, Golden Globe-nominated Greta Gerwig) have plumbed the rudderless meanderings and attendant angst of the young urban creative class to great effect and intelligent comedy.
The film he presented at the festival this year, The Meyerowitz Stories, harkens back to his earlier work, the seminal The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, family dramas where intimacy and emotional strife mingle with painfully recognizable comedy. To wit the stories of the Meyerowitz clan: the patriarch Harold, his wives, children and grandchildren.
The story of this quintessentially New York family of artistic and intellectual bent is told in chapters. In the first, we meet firstborn son Danny (Adam Sandler), recently separated and getting ready to send his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) to college. Unmoored in his forties, Danny has been a good and loving father but is now facing the loss of purpose which often comes with the departure of grown children and the general prospect of a mid-life aimlessness; he is, not coincidentally, moving in to his dad’s house.
That would be Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor and retired College teacher who is consumed with his creative vocation. He is also funny, articulate and supremely self-centered, casually criticizing his children, presuming their availability while keeping them at emotional arms-length – and, worse, openly playing favorites among Danny, his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and their half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller). Having previously thrice divorced, Harold is currently with Maureen (Emma Thompson) a slightly ditzy (and mostly tipsy) free-spirit.
“I was thinking about that sort of point that many of us find ourselves in, where you are both a parent and a child at the same time,” Baumbach explained to HFPA journalists when we met in Cannes. “One of the things the movie is about, is what defines success and for Harold, Dustin’s character, it’s totally external, it’s artistic success, a retrospective at MOMA, and you have his kids feeling like failures because they are also defining it because that is how they grew up.”
It is a movie that contains some poignant truths about being a parent and a child and how the two can overlap without ever providing “resolution”. It also explores the casual and lasting damage that can be inflicted between generations, even with where no malice is intended, and the lifelong recrimination it can lead to. Parenthood, in other words, as a delicate dance that can be even more difficult where self-expression and fulfillment are at odds with parental responsibility.
“Parenthood should change you completely,” remarks Emma Thompson. “It’s very hard if you are an artist and combine being an artist and being a parent. (…) And it’s hard, cause sometimes you have to be massively selfish. (…) I think it’s a very hard combination and Harold just hasn’t managed it on any level. He’s still caught in a kind of teenage narcissism with his relationship to his work and to his children.”
That attitude especially affects Danny, and Adam Sandler, back in Cannes for the first time since headlining Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drink Love. which competed here, offers a nuanced, compelling and very real portrayal, as affecting as it is distant from the brand of broad comedy the actor is usually associated with.
“I feel that Noah wrote something amazing,” Sandler told us. “Reading the script for the first time to shooting it to getting to know everybody and seeing the movie, has been very satisfying (…) So, if it happens again, believe me, it’s not something where I go okay let me wait another 10 years for that.”
To most who saw his performance in Cannes, that would seem well advised.