Not for nothing, Noah Baumbach’s writerly-titled The Myerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a film to be talked about. First, it was one of two Netflix films in competition at Cannes, a distribution model that Jury President Almodovar referred to as “paradoxical”. Then there’s one of the film’s stars, Adam Sandler, who hasn’t been this good since at least Punch Drunk Love. That’s not to say all is forgiven for Jack and Jill or The Ridiculous 6, but sometimes a fine dramatic role in a decent film can, Lourdes-like, as least wash some of the stink off.
This is the story of a bunch of siblings, all living under the shadow of an artist father who never quite scaled the heights he felt he deserved. Harold (Dustin Hoffman) is a sculptor and former professor, living with an alcoholic-in-denial wife (Emma Thompson). His oldest son from his first marriage is Danny, a former aspiring musician who gave it up to be house-husband raising daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). His sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is mousy and awkward, each belittled in their own ways by a domineering dad. The prodigal son, Matthew (Ben Stiller), is from Harold’s other marriage to Julia (Candice Bergen). It’s through Matthew that Harold’s dreams are meant to be realized, even if those dreams are built on distorted memories of the past.
Told in chapters delineating the storyline of each sibling, Baumbach’s film has gentle echoes of earlier works such as The Royal Tenenbaums and Squid and the Whale. There’s much to mine in this kind of family drama, and the addition of the aspirations of a mid-level artist adds a flourish to the familiar.
It may be too easy to praise Sandler for finally acting instead of merely mugging, but there’s something to be said about his onscreen charisma when finally given material that doesn’t grate. When swearing about parking or plinking away at a piano, he brings an energy and haplessness to the screen that’s effective. It’s less of a surprise that Stiller can pull this off (lest we forget his own cinematic sins), but that doesn’t mean his take is any less enjoyable. Above all the quiet dignity of Marvel is itself kind of marvelous, that middle child mentality that’s perfectly attuned to the family dynamic at play. Hoffman looks great in a beard and delivers on what’s expected, and even Judd Hirsch shows up for our own amusement as the successful mirror to Harold’s misfortunes.
The central question explored is a good one – Are the missteps of an asshole father forgiven if the art is good? While this feels like familiar territory for Baumbach, he manages to deliver something that feels at least a little fresh, thanks in part to the capabilities of the extraordinary ensemble. We don’t get either the heavy dive into deep family drama that could be expected, nor a highly stylized or arch comedy. Instead we get something in the middle, and maybe that’s enough for the Myerowitz’s stories. For just like their father, this art isn’t great, it isn’t terrible, but it is worth celebrating on its own terms.