When a major artist finally makes it into the Cannes competition slate, despite consistently producing excellent work, the question becomes: what changed? Is it simply belated recognition? Or is the artist somehow pushing themselves in unprecedented ways, creating work deserving of a larger spotlight? Those are questions that one could ask regarding Noah Baumbach, who makes his first appearance at the Cannes Film Festival with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), despite a filmography that goes back to 1995 with Kicking and Screaming. Oddly enough, the new film—a quiet New York-set drama on various members of the Meyerowitz clan—finds the Manhattan-based director in perfectly comfortable territory, far closer in spirit to his older work than his recent, more adventurous projects with Greta Gerwig. But familiar need not necessarily mean bad. And although it lacks the ambition that one typically associates with a Cannes Competition title (however much or little that's ultimately worth), there's an underlying melancholy imbued in every frame. It’s a “small” film—perhaps even a “minor work,” to borrow one character’s offhand assessment—but worth something all the same.
“I’d like to think that my later work is richer, more interesting,” says Harold (Dustin Hoffman), the patriarch of the Meyerowitz family, a once-celebrated sculptor who’s since lapsed into irrelevance. Given Baumbach’s previous work, it's not difficult to intuit who's affected most. There’s Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), his largely neglected children from his first marriage, and Matthew (Ben Stiller), his favorite, though unartistic, son by his second wife, who works in wealth management. Divided into discrete sections (per the title), The Meyerowitz Stories plays like an anthology, a collection of amusing vignettes that vary in tone and mood, often shifting from broad, zany comedy to sharp one-liners to heftier emotional beats. Eliza (Grace Van Patten), Danny's daughter, goes off to college to study film, and ends up producing and starring in the R-rated adventures of "Pagina Man" (a character with both a penis and a vagina); Danny and Harold attend a show of L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), a longtime friend and artistic contemporary of Harold's whom he describes as “an untalented pretentious enigma”; Harold and Matthew attempt to grab a nice lunch one day, with fairly disastrous results. (There's also a surprising amount of comedy mined just from the way characters limp and shuffle through the streets of New York.)
Parental angst, clashing artistic sensibilities, hyper-intellectual conversations in which characters talk past, rather than to each other—in these respects, it's very much in keeping with something like the director's Squid and the Whale or even Margot at the Wedding, and pulled together by similar editing patterns (specifically the way scenes often transition with a comic abruptness). But Baumbach here forgoes a more acerbic approach for an altogether gentler tone (similar to the shift Alex Ross Perry made with Golden Exits earlier this year). There's ample bitterness beneath the surface and damaged relationships that may never be repaired, but The Meyerowitz Stories shows each member of the family actually trying to be “decent human beings,” which is more than can be said for some Baumbach characters. Matthew tries to get Harold's finances in order by arranging the sale of the apartment (Matthew's childhood home) that he now shares with his third wife Maureen (Emma Thompson), along with the bulk of his artistic work. Danny and Jean set up a group faculty art show for Harold at Bard, where he taught sculpture for decades; and although he's initially insulted at the idea of a group show, he becomes excited at the prospects it may bring to his work. Both developments are complicated when Harold is hospitalized after a head injury that he got while walking his poodle (“You should see the other dog,” he jokes repeatedly), which also provides a pretext for the family to gather for a sustained period of time. Family, after all, is a subject Baumbach has returned to time and time again—understandable, given that, few things in life are as certain (either in presence or absence or neglect) and equally as certain to mark you. At once entertaining, messy, occasionally horrifying, and unbearably sad, The Meyerowitz Stories demonstrates that you don't have to go too far to find artistic inspiration. Family—it's more than enough, and often more than any of us could've bargained for.