Hollywood movies are made by some of the worst people in the world, a fact that all parties in the Harvey Weinstein scandal have now made clear. To understand who they are and the banality of their disreputable behavior, look to The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).
That title is a preening obscenity. It flatters the artistic and literary pretensions of our professional class, those Weinstein enablers, sycophants — even the pile-on castigators. They are shameless aspirants to the high-powered ranks of media and culture — typified, ironically, by The New Yorker, the publication that both “exposed” Weinstein and was where writer-director Noah Baumbach began his well-connected careerism, which is the film’s basic subject.
The Meyerowitzes are not a Hollywood dynasty, but this insiders’ film depicts them as normal — their ruthless decadence disguised within the interplay of family dynamics. Baumbach’s quasi-autobiographical premise simply reflects narcissism, privilege, and social prerogative in full force.
Harold (Dustin Hoffman), the father of the Meyerowitz clan, is a sculptor of little renown; he’s rated as “minor” according to Baumbach’s script, whose dialogue is full of such judgmental New Yorker–isms, a peculiarity of the family’s argot. (In a self-revealing aside, Harold dismisses Somerset Maugham as “skillful but not an artist.”) Harold’s anxiety-ridden, status-conscious adult children are Danny (Adam Sandler), a divorced, failed musician with a limp; Matthew (Ben Stiller), a frazzled celebrity accountant; and mousey Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who is eternally neglected in the shadow of her neurotic brothers. If these characters were named Weinstein, you might immediately know what to think of them. Instead, the Meyerowitz surname stands for particular family traits of bickering and covetousness, which make this film, like other Baumbach movies, unbearable to watch.
There is no plot here, to speak of, just an indulgent display of each male’s obnoxious behavior, separated into pseudo-literary chapters, as in Woody Allen’s vanity project Hannah and Her Sisters. The Meyerowitzes squabble about the father’s art reputation, arguing over which child inspired a recognized sculpture. Each feeling insufficiently loved, they still vie for the most attention.
Baumbach’s signature trope (see The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg) shows his characters using intellectual pretense in place of individual creativity — a weakness that appeals to the insecurity of many reviewers. The Meyerowitzes are both morally inbred and vain. Unconcerned with simply making a living, they play power games. Baumbach’s regard of family life reflects a petty moral sense. Narcissistic filmmaking like this passes muster only in a Weinsteinian culture that approves upper-middle-class petulance.
Without their money and social position, Harold, Danny, and Matthew would be considered miscreants. So it’s an odd experience to watch a movie that’s devoted to unsympathetic characters who are so lacking in self-awareness that they are unrelatable. Sure, their selfishness (Harold begrudges everyone, Danny screams at everyone, Matthew resents everyone) is recognizable, but what’s missing is an element of chagrin that would make them connect to us — or at least make them funny.
If this is considered comedy, think back to the socialite family in that screwball classic My Man Godfrey (1936), whose charm and depth stemmed from a psychological framework of personal responsibility. But each Meyerowitz answers only to his amoral self — epitomized by Danny’s acceptance of his daughter’s nude cavorting in art-world circles. This is a Baumbach fetish (the daughter, played by Grace Van Patten, urinates on camera, similar to the scatological incidents of Margot and Frances Ha). It’s also his sop to critics who no longer associate art with morality — thus another Weinstein association.
Praise for The Meyerowitz Stories exposes critics’ assumption that depravity is part of their cultural mandate.
Just as media folk pretend shock at the Weinstein revelations, praise for The Meyerowitz Stories exposes critics’ assumption that depravity is part of their cultural mandate. Baumbach celebrates family dysfunction from a Boho-chic perspective — the post-Boomer attitude that renounces traditional domestic rules yet enjoys pompous, bourgeois license, irrespective of civility. That also describes Harold’s looming influence as he, despite his increasing infirmity, promotes competitiveness and envy to his stupidly awed, screwed-up progeny. When Harold offends an equally detestable café patron, he justifies his public insult as “my protest. Like John McEnroe.” (Harold is distracted from himself only when meeting Sigourney Weaver at MoMA.) But don’t miss the telling political resonance when Harold grouses, “That is why we have a Republican Congress!”
Has any other movie so extolled middle-class resentment or idealized a broken family that rejected middle-class propriety? (Among the serial stepmothers, Emma Thompson plays constantly drunk while Candice Bergen plays weirdly contrite.) This family mess inadvertently illustrates the mindset by which Harvey Weinstein could psychologically justify his selfish, sex-centered, power-mad inclinations — which the media now pretend to abhor. But the immoral truth is found in critics’ bizarre praise of Adam Sandler’s Danny. After years of ridiculing Sandler’s comic gifts in other movies (especially his Jack and Jill tour de force), critics now acclaim his demeaning Baumbach caricature.
The way Sandler’s true artistry has been ignored in favor of this humiliation is a lesson in cultural decline. Sandler, whose first expression of ethnic pride came in the singular, animated Hanukkah movie Eight Crazy Nights (2002), usually counters the timid Jewish-comic stereotype. In Don’t Mess with the Zohan, he played an Israeli “counter-terrorist” able to disarm and foot-slap his Palestinian adversaries while also performing amazing athletic feats. Zohan, a brazenly original characterization, was not merely an ethnic superhero, he was an anti-nebbish — one with conservative values. But Danny Meyerowitz’s querulousness and pathetic limp do not amount to characterization — Danny is just kvetching.
Like Harvey Weinstein, Sandler’s Danny epitomizes a self-serving weakness. Through this central character, Baumbach perverts our understanding of the family, that central unit of civilization where we learn fellow feeling — or else we never do learn it and are stuck with the inescapable misery of tribal vanity.
With these characters (meant to be seen as raw, honest, and uproarious), Baumbach emulates the mixed-up families of J. D. Salinger and fellow Salingerite Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums). He also diminishes the family dynamics that Brian De Palma, subject of a Baumbach documentary, wittily critiqued in Home Movies (1980). Too bad Baumbach lacks Anderson’s gentleness, De Palma’s humor, and Salinger’s aching desire. With Baumbach, even aching desire (the siblings’ inability to be copacetic) seems smug. Sandler and Stiller’s climactic shoving match never becomes cathartic like the brotherly touch in Crooked Hearts (one of the best films of Baumbach’s ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh). The Salinger prototype represents cultural cachet for social-climber artistes Baumbach and Anderson. But Delmore Schwartz’s seminal family story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” would be a better model for self-examination, as it was for Schwartz’s acolyte Lou Reed, who channeled it into his album Growing Up in Public (1980), a superior autobiographical family chronicle.
Baumbach puts the rotten ‘secrets’ of Hollywood and the media world on display, yet almost no one in the critical constabulary will dare criticize it for fear of losing prestige.
Reviewers who call The Meyerowitz Stories “smart” congratulate themselves for recognizing the film’s elite references. Aspiring to its snideness is no different from protecting Weinstein’s prominence and influence. Baumbach puts the rotten “secrets” of Hollywood and the media world on display, yet almost no one in the critical constabulary will dare criticize it for fear of losing prestige, scared of having to look inside only to be repulsed — like the Meyerowitz crybabies — at seeing their own classist, racist, tribal mediocrity.
The Meyerowitz Stories is rooted in New York–Hollywood greed, arrogance, and egocentricity. Baumbach mythologizes this corruption as upper-middle-class habit. Like Harvey Weinstein’s depredations, the Meyerowitzes’ culture of permissive privilege is commonplace in Millennial film circles.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.