The New York accent of Noah Baumbach’s new film, which he wrote and directed, is a particular and familiar one. The resonances begin with its title. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” takes a literary angle that indirectly suggests The New Yorker, J. D. Salinger and, to some extent, Woody Allen. Mr. Baumbach sticks with the short-story conceit throughout, but he uses it as both a guiding principle and a means to surprise.
After the quiet opening credits (delivered in a terribly genteel typeface), the first line of the first story appears: “Danny Meyerowitz was trying to park.” The movie cuts to a medium close-up of a mustachioed Adam Sandler at a steering wheel looking back over his shoulder and screaming his head off.
This is good for a laugh (and there are more to come), but once Danny pulls out of the impossible space and tools around downtown Manhattan, a different side of the character appears. His daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), has been peppering their parking adventure with some dietary advice for her father, which he shrugs off with good humor. When “Head to Toe,” a 1987 hit by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam comes on the car’s stereo, Danny and Eliza exchange warm reminiscences while singing along. While he may be prone to parking rage (as who isn’t, but as it happens, he gets mad about lots of other stuff as well), Danny seems, overall, a great dad and a warm-hearted guy.
But Danny’s father, Harold, immediately establishes himself as a less-than-great patriarch when his son and granddaughter arrive for a visit — Eliza just for a night, as she’s headed off to Bard; Danny for longer, as he’s just separated from his wife. Played with spectacularly virtuosic timing and emotional misdirection by Dustin Hoffman, Harold is a sculptor feeling unappreciated late in life. This is a state he can’t help commenting on repeatedly, talking over everyone around him: Danny, Eliza; his current wife and the world’s worst cook, Maureen (Emma Thompson); his withdrawn daughter, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel); and later, his other son, Matthew (Ben Stiller), a successful business manager in Los Angeles whose own reluctant visit is extended by a series of mishaps.
These characters have a lot to work out, and they do work it out, mostly hilariously. The Meyerowitzes are paragons of a specifically Manhattan-style liberal tolerance: The scene in which Danny and his sister and father react with complete nonchalance to Eliza’s first student film, a self-starring quasi-pornographic fantasia about a superhero named “Pagina-Man,” is likely to be cited in a good number of culture-conservative think pieces this season.
None of the Meyerowitzes are fulfilled, and all of them seethe with resentment. Almost everything that comes out of Harold’s mouth is a passive-aggressive accusation pitched with head-spinning atonal refinement, as when, on an unscheduled visit to the home of one of his ex-wives (Candice Bergen, in a droll cameo), he makes a beeline to a bookshelf and says “I think this is my copy of ‘Buddenbrooks.’”
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