The Meyerowitz family is a complicated one, thanks to paterfamilias and erstwhile darling of the 1960s art scene Harold (Dustin Hoffman) having racked up four marriages and three children. Before meeting him, our focus is on the older son Danny (Adam Sandler) driving to dinner chez dad with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). With one short car journey, Baumbach sets the warm comedic tone for the film and clearly depicts the loving and intimate relationship between father and daughter. Alas, not all relationships between the family members are as close. When Danny limps into the family home, we meet his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and there is clearly a conspiratorial closeness between them. Harold’s current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) is a lush – and a hilariously terrible cook – while Harold is crotchety, egotistical and has something of a one-track mind as far as his kids are concerned: for his only focus is Matthew (Ben Stiller), the youngest of the siblings. At the table, while dining on shark stew, all conversations lead to Matthew.
When Matthew shows up in the city, he is a complete contrast to Danny. Where the older half-brother is all Bermuda shorts and slovenliness, Matthew is pristine and precise. They barely seem to know each other and appear to have little in common. But if Matthew is the golden boy, why the distance? Having ditched New York for LA, he has effectively placed an entire country between himself and his family. The reason soon becomes clear, for Harold is no picnic, not even with his favourite child. After this quick trip, Matthew returns when Harold is later hospitalised, and it is a chance for the three siblings to finally bond or go their separate ways.
What makes this work particularly outstanding is Baumbach’s brilliant screenplay. When trying to remember the password to Harold’s computer, he says to Danny ‘try Matthew’ and when Harold is in hospital the nurse states ‘he must have a real tolerance for discomfort’. Harold does not just have a tolerance for discomfort, he seems to thrive on it. Unfortunately, it is the discomfort of others and not his own. Hoffman is superb as this bitter man, so dismissive of his peers’ success and yet so envious of it. He is oblivious to the pain he causes his children and what is amazing is not that the children are dysfunctional, but that they have anything to do with their father at all. The film is broken into chapters, each focusing on a family member or particular event. Another nice touch Baumbach uses is the abrupt ending to scenes, which cut off the characters’ words and evoke the sense of unfinished business.
The film deals with rivalry and jealousy – of siblings, of new step mums, of more successful friends – but also how adults have to let go of their prejudices made in the past. There is a lovely moment when Harold finally meets up with his ex-wife and mother to Matthew, Julia (Candice Bergen). Again, we see Harold’s massive ego at play, whereas she graciously apologises for not being a better maternal presence to Harold’s two older children. And essentially these are the key themes: acceptance and forgiveness.
As the two sparring and distant half-brothers come together, they also learn how to forgive their father. Sandler and particularly Stiller put in bravura performances, while Marvel shines as the neglected, dutiful and damaged daughter who is also the moral backbone of the family. But this is an ensemble piece and the cast works wonderfully as a whole. The score by the prolific and uber-talented Randy Newman is an essential element that sets the tone of the film, which is a warm, funny and grown-up take on the emotional minefield of family relationships.