The Jewish dream team of Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman star in Noah Baumbach’s new Netflix comedy drama, writes Helen Barlow
If Woody Allen ever kicks the bucket, Noah Baumbach is poised to take over the mantle as New York’s greatest living Jewish filmmaker, telling stories that are at once funny, poignant and scathing. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) marks the 48-year-old’s third New York-set movie in a row and he has hit the jackpot by casting three of Hollywood’s biggest Jewish stars. Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller play brothers while Dustin Hoffman plays their dad. How eccentric could one film get?
The film is coming just as Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s partner in life and screenwriting (Frances Ha, Mistress America), has had a huge hit on the festival circuit with her directing debut, Lady Bird. Stiller also starred in one of the best other films on the circuit, teaming for the first time with Mike White in Brad’s Status where his character is far less successful than in Meyerowitz even if he’s just as anxious. ‘Has anyone suffered through more cinematic midlife crises than Ben Stiller?’ asked one critic.
Baumbach based his Meyerowitz Stories screenplay on various ideas he’d discarded from previous films. “A few elements I’d been thinking about for a while found some kind of nest in this movie,” he explains.
The dysfunctional family yarn focuses on the estranged brothers Danny (Sandler) and Matt (Stiller) as they get together to organise a tribute to their recently retired artist/art professor father Harold (Hoffman) with their sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). Harold’s madcap alcoholic fourth wife (a scene-stealing Emma Thompson) also shares her opinions as she teams with Matt, a Los Angeles-based wealth management consultant, to devise a plan to donate Harold’s work.
“The Meyerowitz family is a family I’ve known and am familiar with,” Baumbach admits. “In some ways art is the religion here and that takes the precedence above everything else. Art is your belief system.
“I was thinking about the mythology of families that parents unconsciously create for their kids and for themselves. These mythologies become your own personal mythologies as you grow up and you suddenly realise there are different levels of what it means to be successful. Danny feels like a failure even if he’s an amazing father and househusband but in this family that’s not valued in the same way. Matt has success with money but feels he’s a failure in the creative area. I wanted to explore the gap between who we want to be and who we are and how wide that gap is. Obviously professional success and fame in the arts is a way to explore that and in the movie Harold feels like a failure because he’s not a successful artist.”
When it came to the casting Baumbach was able to attract his first choice of actors. Stiller was certainly happy to work with the writer-director again.
“I thought the script was beautiful,” Stiller says. “Noah’s writing is very precise and unique and his filmmaking style is singular. Then when he told me Dustin was to play the dad I was so excited. After working on the Focker movies [Meet the Fockers (2004), Little Fockers (2010)] I never thought I’d get a chance to work with him on a different kind of movie. When we read together there was some chemistry there. Dustin is incredibly kind and generous and self-effacing.”
On the other hand Stiller had never worked with Sandler. “We’d known each other for 20 years so making this film was a good place to start. It was the most amount of time we’d ever spent together.”
Still all these consummate comedic actors (with the exception of Thompson) had to refrain from outright humour, with Sandler delivering his most serious and perhaps best performance since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love in 2002. They had to adhere to Baumbach’s screenplay and were happy to do so.
“When I’m writing it’s a rhythm and a thing I’m feeling my way through,” Baumbach explains. “I’m not stopping and thinking we need a serious moment here or a funny moment there. To me they’re indistinguishable. I like having people who on some level have humour embedded in everything. It’s very important to the material because it almost feels funny even if it’s not.”
There’s an Irish connection to The Meyerowitz Stories too as Baumbach worked with Dublin-born cinematographer Robbie Ryan for the first time.
“I’d loved Robbie’s work before and when I met him something clicked,” Baumbach recalls. “I’d shot my previous two films in New York and I wanted new eyes on the city. I wanted an outsider’s view to my insider view. Robbie also helped me develop a certain kind of look I’d been developing in the past few movies. He’s an artist; he’s that special person you find and you just want to keep doing things with them.”
Given that The Meyerowitz Stories was made for little money, Ryan’s expertise in the low budget realm on films including I, Daniel Blake, Philomena and Slow West, proved invaluable.
“I made this movie with independent money and I shot it on Super 16,” Baumbach explains, referring to the economical way of shooting. “I made it as I’ve made all my movies with the expectation that it would be shown on the big screen.”
Netflix acquired the film in postproduction and is now pushing it as a contender in the awards season. Even if his film will barely make it to cinemas Baumbach is clearly going with the flow. “Netflix have been hugely supportive and I feel very appreciative to them,” he says of the streaming giant.
Brad’s Status has already released in the US and is certainly another Stiller movie to watch out for. He plays Brad Sloan, a happily married man with a satisfying career and a comfortable life in suburban California. Still it’s not quite what he imagined for himself as a young man. When he is forced to reconnect with his college friends (played by actors including Michael Sheen and Luke Wilson), he wonders what he’s missed out on in typical self-loathing fashion. As with Sandler, Stiller had known Mike White, the writer of School of Rock and Beatriz at Dinner, for around 20 years, yet they had never made a movie together. Like Meyerowitz, Brad’s Status is a serious kind of comedy.
“When Mike said he wanted to direct this I knew it was something that meant a lot to him in terms of what he wanted to express,” Stiller says.
“Mike has the ability to see inside of people and he is not afraid to pull stuff out. This movie could have been a funny comedy because Mike is naturally very funny. But here he’s interested in giving people a different experience and tried to bring as much reality to the comedy as possible. He likes breaking all the rules. Brad is this depressed guy who walks around for almost two hours and somehow people connect with that. What he’s going through is universal. Voiceover goes throughout the whole movie and that’s something you’re never supposed to do. It felt very bold.”
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