If every generation sees one filmmaker compared to Woody Allen, then Noah Baumbach has currently inherited that mantle. Certainly, the New York-born filmmaker behind Greenberg, While We’re Young and this month’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) boasts traces of Allen’s oeuvre in his dialogue-heavy, urban-set tales of liberal, artistically-minded characters. But as one critic put it, Baumbach “isn’t out to emulate his predecessor; he wants to decimate him”.
Greta Gerwig, Baumbach’s off-screen partner and star/co-writer of Baumbach’s millennial dramas Frances Ha and Mistress America, reports that such Allen-centric conversations don’t go down well. “I asked him recently, ‘How do you feel about people comparing you to Woody Allen?’ He was like, ‘Stop it, it’s breakfast!’” Does he really react badly to such comparisons? “Well, yeah, sometimes you want to just digest your food,” he tells me.
The Meyerowitz Stories probably won’t help, with the film already compared to the Allen masterpiece Hannah and Her Sisters. Made independently but bought/released by Netflix, it had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival last week. It tells the story of a family of arty Jewish New Yorkers revolving around irascible patriarch, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor who has never quite got his due, a fact that still infuriates him. On his third (or possibly fourth) marriage — this time to a hippie lush named Maureen (Emma Thompson) — he has three grown-up kids from two of his previous unions.
The Meyerowitz clan are as dysfunctional as they come. Matthew (Ben Stiller) is a fund manager who has left New York and moved to Los Angeles, seemingly to be as far away from his father as possible. His half-brother Danny (Adam Sandler) is facing a divorce and even the mild humiliation of having to move back into his parental home. And then there’s overlooked doormat Jean (Elizabeth Marvel).
For 48 year-old Baumbach, the project began in an almost casual way. “Adam had approached me a few years ago, and said in his great way, ‘Whatever you want me to do, I’ll come do.’” He’d already worked with Stiller, and had lunch with both actors. “We talked about that it would be exciting for them to play brothers,” he recalls. “I think the only other thing I came away with is that they should fight physically at some point!”
Harold Meyerowitz was “inspired by people I know or aspects of different people”, says Baumbach. “Noah and I met many times and compared both our fathers,” says Hoffman. “That’s the honest answer. And I’m married to someone who knew my father and, like many of us, we are our father at certain points. She always points it out to me; my father’s name was Harry and she says, ‘You’re being Harry.’ Someone said, ‘We mock who we are soon to become.’”
The film deals with a number of themes — ageing, illness and generational conflict — the idea of success (or lack thereof) looms largest. “You have this patriarch of this family who defines success in a very external way,” says Baumbach. “How many famous sculptors are there? And yet he wants great recognition. He’s made it even harder for himself.
“This need for a certain kind of success is very male, and I think that’s probably true. I don’t imagine this story as a mother-daughter story.”
Baumbach’s films aren’t commercial hits like the work of his friend Wes Anderson (with whom he co-wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Does he feel the pressure to be successful? “Well, it’s definitely a pressure in the country [I live in]. I guess being a filmmaker now is like being a sculptor! When I went into it, it seemed mainstream. Now, well…I should’ve been a chef!”
Baumbach occasionally works in Hollywood (he wrote the children’s animated film Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted). He adds: “Of course you feel those pressures…but I really do feel lucky to have been able to do exactly what I want the way I want it, as a filmmaker. I’ve got to make movies that I want to make that are personal and meaningful to me, and uncompromised. That’s remarkable.”
The third of four siblings, he has frequently mined his own life for inspiration. His 2005 film, The Squid and the Whale, drew from his parents’ divorce, when he was 14. “I totally fictionalised the story and the characters,” he qualifies. “I didn’t anticipate that people in my family would be asked questions based on the fiction of the movie, as if everything was real. I’m sure it was quite annoying for them! But they were really supportive.”
Raised in Park Slope, New York, Baumbach’s middle-class upbringing evidently informed his work and mindset. His Jewish father Jonathan Baumbach taught at Brooklyn College, published experimental fiction and wrote film criticism in the publication Partisan Review. His mother Georgia Brown, a Protestant, also wrote fiction and was later a film critic at the Village Voice.
“I never thought of them as film critics growing up. They both were creative writers also,” he explains. “In those days too, there were a lot of fiction writers who were critics. There was more of a conversation going across these borders that I think is less true now, that intellectual life in New York. So in a way, I thought of them more in that context. My Mom didn’t start reviewing movies until I was in high school, and I was already thinking about making movies.”
With a film featuring children desperately seeking patriarchal approval, it’s rather intriguing that Baumbach began making movies with his own father a film critic. “My father has been incredibly supportive, and loves that I make movies, because he loves movies, so it’s exciting for him,” says Baumbach, cautiously. “But we’re all in the shadow of our parents in one way or the other. Even if it’s benign rule, they’re the authorities.”
One of the key moments in the film is when Harold falls ill. “In movies when someone dies in the hospital, it can be cathartic,” says the writer-director.
“So I thought, ‘What if the parent lives? What do you do then?’ I thought there was a way to narratively tell that story; if he died in a way you get that release. Instead, it’s not that easy; he’s still there, still not inviting you to lunch and you’ve got to figure it out.”
The cast aren’t convinced Baumbach is drawing from the fountain of Jewish humour. “I’ve got to be honest, I think the only connection to Jewish humour is our last name is Meyerowitz,” says Sandler. “I never once thought of this as a Jewish comedy. I just thought of it as a family [story]…”
He laughs. “There’s a lot of Jews in it, I’ll give you that!” Then he jokes, with a cheeky smile: “Emma [Thompson] — Emma’s one of the best Jews on the planet.”
Sandler shines in The Meyerowitz Stories. Frequently known for his high-grossing, low-brained man-child comedies like Grown Ups and Big Daddy, he rarely gets the chance to work in more adult fare — with the exception, perhaps, of Judd Apatow’s Funny People and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love.
But he’s modest. “Any compliment I get, I say, ‘Noah told me to do that!’ I love being in this one, it’s a good feeling. But you can’t count that this will come my way every day.”
Stiller, who briefly appeared uncredited in Sandler’s 1996 film Happy Gilmore, has nothing but praise for his co-star, who over the years would telephone him to congratulate him if he had a hit movie.
“Nobody does that in showbusiness. To call and say ‘Hey, congrats on that…’ That doesn’t happen. Adam has done that to me many times. That’s a really menschy thing.”
Harold Meyerowitz might not know it, but success doesn’t have to ruin a person.
The Meyerowitz Stories opens in cinemas and streams on Netflix from October 13.