Have you seen the Noah Baumbach movie about the sons grappling with their father’s divorce and his legacy as an artistic has-been? No, I’m not talking about The Squid and the Whale. I’m talking about Baumbach’s latest movie about this, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which will have its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival on Monday and comes to Netflix Oct. 13.
As the title indicates, Meyerowitz is about a completely different family, but Baumbach admits that he “kind of went back to The Squid and the Whale” for this dramedy. “I had started [The Squid and the Whale] writing from an adult perspective and then scrapped it to go back and write from the child’s perspective,” he explained during a press conference at Lincoln Center.
In Meyerowitz, the siblings are full-grown adults, complete with hip problems and divorces of their own, but they’re still grappling with the egoism of their emotionally distant father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor who once got a piece in the Whitney but never hit it big. He lives near Astor Place, in a townhouse any New Yorker would envy, but he resents peers like the old friend (Judd Hirsch) who’s now selling paintings to Sigourney Weaver (the actress makes an appearance, as does Candice Bergen).
But back to the kids: Danny (Adam Sandler) is a loving dad to his daughter (Grace Van Patten) but this fails to impress his father, who doesn’t understand why Danny ever quit the piano. Matthew (Ben Stiller) is a wealth manager to celebrity clients like the nouveau-riche musician/coffee roaster who wants to put a swimming pool into the building he just bought in Greenpoint (Adam Driver, who previously starred alongside Stiller in Baumbach’s While We’re Young). This career choice also fails to impress Harold, who believes, in Baumbach’s words, that “art is religion,” and wants his favorite son to follow in his footsteps. Finally, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is a shrinking violet who is all but invisible to the family patriarch– and, for that matter, to her brothers.
As if channeling Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury via Wes Anderson, the film dedicates separate chapters to each sibling. Baumbach said the structure followed that of a short story collection—hence (New and Selected). “I was thinking of authors who’ve returned to the same family over time,” he said, citing John Updike’s The Maple Stories, a collection of fiction written over the course of four decades.
“I found something extra moving about the fact that these stories existed in real time and weren’t preordained,” Baumbach said. “There was something very sad to me that [Updike] arrived at these conclusions for these people that he didn’t necessarily have when he published the first story years before.”
Baumbach said he knew he “wanted to do something about brothers” and that when he, Sandler, and Stiller had lunch to discuss the film during its earliest stages, “the only thing we came away with was that they should fight, that there should be a physical fight. That’s all we had. So I reverse engineered the movie from that.”
The fight ends up happening on a college campus that’s identified as Bard (the scene was actually filmed at Sarah Lawrence). Though it’s an explosion of sibling rivalry, it’s good and comical—as is much of the film. Throughout, the neuroses of the children clash against each other and against those of their father and their alcoholic, oblivious stepmother (Emma Thompson) in a way that propels Meyerowitz in the manner of a screwball comedy. Add to this, Randy Newman improvised much of the score by playing piano along to an edit of the film, which makes things feel even more frenzied.
Baumbach said that he wanted the film to “have the energy of a His Girl Friday,” and cited the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and Max Ophuls as influences along with Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. “It’s totally crazy and heightened,” Baumbach noted of the Bergman film, which also influenced Baumbach’s kindred spirit, Woody Allen. “You would say, ‘I connect so strongly with this, it feels totally true and real to me,’ and [yet] it’s moving in this theatrical world, if you actually think of that.”
Given that Baumbach went to great pains to shoot the film (on Super 16) like a comedy, one can understand why he gets prickly when he’s asked if his dialogue is improvised. “That’s why I feel insulted when people refer to things as documentary-like or improvised, “ he said of his films. “I think I’m going for some total artifice here.”