There has been a plethora of “based on a true life story” films of late from this week’s “6 Below”, “Detroit” in the summer, the upcoming “Jungle” and last week’s “The Glass Castle”, to name but a few. But sometimes fiction can capture more of the truth than fact.
“The Glass Castle” for example had a somewhat glamourised, dishonest air to its tale. Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” is fiction, though I suspect it may be inspired by his own experience of life and family relationships. He’s done it before in “The Squid and the Whale”. And this latest film certainly has the ring of total emotional honesty and truth. It is also in many places very funny.
Danny (Sandler) and Matthew (Stiller) are half brothers, the sons of Harold (Hoffman) a much married ageing professor and sculptor of minor reputation. Matthew is a successful hot shot accountant/business manager in Los Angeles. Danny, who like his father still lives in New York, once showed talent as a musician but relinquished his ambitions to become a “house husband” to his successful but now ex-wife and raise their daughter Eliza (Van Patten), who now makes eye-popping, semi pornographic “artistic” videos and is about to start a film course at the college where Harold once taught. There is also a half sister Jean (Marvel).
The relationships in this family are complicated with a lot of unresolved “stuff”, particularly between the brothers and with their father. Things come to a head when Harold is injured in a fall, as a result of which his memory becomes erratic. He is taken to hospital and may not survive, which is when his sons realise that time could be running out to resolve their issues.
That may all sound a bit downbeat but the material is handled entertainingly with the sort of New York Jewish wit of those early Woody Allen movies, which were also set in the world of middle class Manhattan intellectuals.
Hoffman is terrific as Harold, an irritable, grey bearded patriarch, who is jealous of his contemporaries in the art world, who have achieved more fame than he has. His children’s efforts to organise a retrospective of his work have to be handled with great care in order not to injure his sensitive ego. Both Sandler and Stiller put their comic talents to good use but also demonstrate an emotional depth and understanding in their characters. The scene where they revert to the fisticuffs of squabbling children is a comic jewel with strong emotional undertones.
The female characters are somewhat sidelined but Thompson, who was so good with Hoffman in the sweet love story “Last Chance Harvey”, makes the most of her role as Harold’s current partner, as does Marvel, rising above the squabbles of her half brothers, while there is a strong cameo from Candice Bergen as one of Harold’s ex-wives.
The film is an example of the way distribution patterns are changing. Shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and also screened at the London Film Festival, it is a Netflix production and will be shown immediately on that channel along with a limited theatrical release.