A few years ago I spent one particularly weird evening waiting for a red-eye flight at the Sacramento airport. It’s a small, intimate airport. You might remember it from the scene in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha when Greta Gerwig’s character goes home briefly to visit her parents. I sat in that airport for hours, nursing a cocktail next to a bright blue typewriter wondering if they’d let me on the plane with it. This time spent alone in this tiny airport would later be tied in memory forever with another Baumbach film: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). I just didn’t know it yet.
Like many of Baumbach’s films, The Meyerowitz Stories centers on a dysfunctional family of a certain economic status (read: extremely well off). Patriarch Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is a gifted sculptor whose egomaniacal personality has affected his three children in different ways. Matthew (Ben Stiller) moved across the country, works in finance, and is currently separated from his wife. Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) works at Xerox, lives a distant quiet life, and has hidden some troubling secrets from her family. Danny (Adam Sandler) also separated from his wife, chose raising his daughter over pursuing a career in music, and recently moved back in with his father. When Harold enters the hospital the three siblings reunite and begin unpacking their complicated childhoods. Although they share a parent (Matthew has a different mother), they each have unique traumas from childhood that they carry into their adult lives. It’s funny how you can grow up feeling you shared a childhood with a sibling, only to discover in adulthood that it was not the same experience, at all.
The Meyerowitz Stories debuted at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, competing for the Palme d’Or, and was released on Netflix and in theaters that Fall. At the time of its theatrical release, I had just moved across the country to Atlanta. I am from California. I am a sixth-generation Californian. No one in my immediate family had moved further away from California than Texas in generations. I moved for a job, but I also needed a break from my family. My final conversation with my parents before my cross-country move was a fight. Not a polite fight. It was one of those embarrassing familial debacles that happen in public when tensions are high and you know you shouldn’t make other people’s day worse by becoming a spectacle in a restaurant, but you also just can’t take it anymore.
Much like Matthew Meyerowitz, after relocating, I didn’t speak to my family for a long time. The fight we had when I left California found its way into our phone conversations and onto Facebook. Ostensibly about a piece of furniture, it was actually about a lifetime of issues that hadn’t been dealt with on both sides and that, for some reason, none of us were willing to just talk through. So I stopped talking. It’s amazing how easy it is to just not talk to people when you’re on the other side of the country.
I didn’t know much about the plot of The Meyerowitz Stories when it came out. As a big Baumbach fan, I should have watched it right away. I remember it playing at the Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta, but feeling as though I just couldn’t watch it at the time. Maybe I had an inkling that I wasn’t ready for this film. Whatever it was, I’m glad I listened to my instincts. I do believe a book, or a song, or a film will come into your life at the right time and this was not the right time for this specific movie.
The Meyerowitz Stories is presented in chapters: Danny. Matthew. The Group Show. Jean’s Story. Early and Late Meyerowitz. In each chapter, the viewer gets another glimpse at the family’s dynamics. How each of these adult children were shaped by their father, their mothers, step-mothers, and their siblings. Baumbach knows the intricacies of toxic families well. How those who’ve helped build our lives and grow into the people we are know expertly how to tear us down again.
A few years into my family rift, when I was firmly the black sheep, my Grampa had a bad fall in his home and my parents decided to move him into an assisted living facility. They also decided to sell his home. I had always loved my Grampa’s home. My grandmother passed when I was very young, but I had memories of her in this place. She decorated it, and every time I visited it felt like I was visiting her. I decided I needed to say goodbye. A goodbye to the house. A goodbye to the last vestige of my grandmother. Maybe even a last goodbye to my childhood. At this point, I hadn’t spoken to my family in years. But I needed to do this. I got on an airplane headed West.
As when Matthew reunites with his father, there was tension when I saw my parents at the airport, the first time I’d seen them in person since our big fight years earlier. The Sacramento airport is made of glass and bright sunlight streams in all over. I prolonged seeing my parents by heading to a Starbucks to get an iced coffee. When I finally headed towards baggage claim I spotted them. My father looked pretty somber. My mother had a big smile on her face. She tried to give me a hug like we hadn’t not spoken in over a year. I was rigid as she embraced me. I did my best to put on a happy face, to get through the weekend for my Grampa. For this closure with the house. But as with any tense situation long neglected, a few days later and a few hours before I was to head back to the airport, things erupted. The fight ignited anew, although this time I was capable of expressing what I was really upset about. It wasn’t about furniture. It wasn’t any one thing, but years of many things.
In Matthew’s chapter, he and his father spend a day together. They meet for lunch, but Matthew arrives late and his father doesn’t want to eat at the place his son chose. They leave another establishment because Matthew brings an estate expert to discuss the selling of his father’s house, and Harold resents having an interloper present during a discussion of a private family matter. Harold pushes all of his son’s buttons. He doesn’t listen as Matthew opens up about his failing marriage. He belittles Matthew’s mother. Matthew tries to tell him about how scary it was to start his own business, but that it’s doing well now; Harold could care less. Finally, Matthew loses it. He knows exactly why his father riles him up, and he’s worked hard to not let it bother him. And yet…just as his father gets into his car to leave, Matthew says to him, “I keep thinking I know how to handle you now, but then I see you and I get suckered into your shit all over again.” He loses his cool and begins to shout at him. Matthew says he got all of his father’s attention growing up, unlike the siblings who were neglected, but that fucked him up in a whole other way. He wants his father to be proud of his success, but he also wants to show his father he’s done better than him. There’s a weird competitiveness to their relationship, but one I felt was all too real.
I have always loved sharing my successes. I want to hear that my parents are proud of me. But with every career or life move, my mother always has to compare it to something she’s done. As if she could have done what I did if she’d had the chance. She also uses my success as a metric to brag about her own life to others, as I think most parents do. But then she turns it into something rotten. Often it feels as though if I am not something to brag about, then I am nothing.
After this sequence, Harold is admitted to the hospital and the siblings spend more time with each other than they have in years. Matthew, the older brother, does his best to understand Danny. They, too, have an uneasy relationship. But Matthew seems to have grown a bit being so far from the source of his angst, and as such attempts to help Danny see the codependent life he’s built with his father. Their father’s unhealthy belittling done in ways that doesn’t appear unkind on the surface, and maybe was never meant to be, but nevertheless stings as it burrows under the skin.
On one of their visits to the hospital, they see a man named Paul Epstein, once a family friend. As Matthew and Danny reminisce about how they always liked him, Jean runs into the surrounding woods. The brothers catch up with her and she shares a morbid story about a summer spent on Martha’s Vineyard. A memory only she has. After describing a magical day on the water, she shares how Paul masturbated in front of her; she was too stunned to do anything about it at the time. She told their father about the incident when it happened; because Epstein hadn’t touched her inappropriately, his response was to let it be. Matthew and Danny look on in shock, hearing for this first time this traumatic story that shaped their sister. How could they have missed such a big moment in their sibling’s life?
My brother and I had been pretty close growing up when we were children. I always thought of us as twins (we’re only 16 months apart). But the closeness began to fracture as we headed into adolescence, and completely broke apart when we were in high school. I had undiagnosed bipolar II, and this coupled with mistreatment by my parents led to me being placed in foster care for a spell. Our relationship never fully recovered.
On my trip out west, my family was staying with my brother in his new house. Unlike in The Meyerowitz Stories, my main issues lie not with my father, but with my mother (these cliches are true my friends!). Our fight reignited one afternoon while the two of us were left alone, but spilled into the return of my brother, his wife, and my father. At one point, my brother asked why I was still upset about things that had happened in my childhood. It hit me then that even though we grew up together, we were two whole individuals with completely different perceptions of life. I told him we had very different childhoods. This was a hard truth to swallow. That this person I thought I knew so well, I didn’t really know at all. And worse, he didn’t know me.
While Harold remains in the hospital, Matthew, Danny, and Jean present their father’s work at a group show at Bard College. They all have their gripes with their father. They all have scars because of him. And yet, as each takes a turn talking about their father and his work, they begin to weep. Although they’ve just popped some pills (Matthew couldn’t remember if they were uppers or downers), their words come from the heart. They speak about their father, but also themselves and the way he shaped them. Everyone is selfish when it comes to reflections on other people. It is never just about that person, but about that person as you see them.
During the years I wasn’t speaking to my family, I would still tell stories about them in conversations with friends and co-workers. As you do. Often people would ask me if I’d ever make up with them, as clearly they meant a lot to me. That’s the thing—I have these stories and these memories about my family because I spent 18 years living and growing with them. I’ll always have stories. And there’ll always be love there. But that doesn’t mean they’re good for me and that doesn’t there isn’t any damage . All of these memories and feels, the bitter and the sweet, they’re all a part of me. Forever.
Towards the end of the film, Danny also enters the hospital for treatment of something he’s been neglecting. A pain in his leg. He’s just been living with it, until he couldn’t any longer. Matthew apologizes for not being able to stop their father’s new wife from selling Danny’s childhood home—something Matthew himself had put in motion. Danny says to his brother, “Sometimes I wish Dad had done one horrible, unforgivable thing, something specific I could be angry about. But it isn’t one thing. It’s tiny things every day. It’s drip, drip, drip.” I felt this line so deeply. I’ll say I’m estranged from my family and people will ask why and it’s always far too complicated to explain. It’s too many little things that might sound like nothing if you don’t understand the complex weight behind why they sting.
Matthew has offered Danny a trip to stay with him in Los Angeles. He hasn’t decided if he’s going to go or if he’s going to stay with his father. At first when Harold returns from the hospital Danny is there for him. But it’s not the same Danny from before. In spending time with his siblings and away from his father he’s grown. Harold, however, remains mostly the same. He falls right back into the same drip, drip, drip behavior that Danny had let pass way too long into his adulthood. Eventually Danny loses it. He smashes a plate of cookies, apologizing to both his father and his father’s caretaker, not realizing it would be so loud. He tells his father he’s going to L.A. and won’t be staying with him. He then says “I love you,” as the camera pulls in tighter on his face. The camera now pulled tight onto his lip, he whispers, “I forgive you. Forgive me. Thank you. Goodbye.” The camera fades to black.
After the eruption with my mother, my dad drove me to the airport a full five hours earlier than necessary. It was the only way to stop the fight. Nothing was really resolved. But I had said what I needed to say and left them with stuff they needed to think about if they wanted to patch our relationship. I hadn’t seen The Meyerowitz Stories yet, but I felt the release of tension that Baumbach so eloquently achieves with Danny’s actions. And it felt good.
In the hubbub of the weekend I had found a bright blue typewriter in my Grampa’s house and decided I was going to take it home with me. I had only brought carry-on luggage so this was going to be an issue. While he had been out, while my mom and I had renewed our decades long fight, my dad had found an oversized Trader Joe’s bag for me to put the thing in when I brought it on the airplane. As he dropped me at the airport with my one bag and this bulky typewriter he said he was sorry and that he loved me. I could count the times I’d heard those words from him on one hand. It wasn’t a lot, but it was a step in the right direction.
Wisely, Baumbach doesn’t show the Meyerowitz family all patched up. They haven’t worked through their issues. It’s unclear if they ever will. But they’ve taken steps in the right direction. And in the end, it’s Danny the story focuses on, just as it was Danny who opened the film. He’s got a chance at a new act in life. Maybe he’s finally ready for it. He may not have worked it out directly with his father, but in forgiving and asking for forgiveness, even just quietly to himself, he’s patched something internally that had been bleeding for a long time.
I wasn’t ready for this movie when it was first released, just as I wasn’t ready for forgiveness—to ask for it or to bestow it. I’m still not sure I’m ready for the latter, but I’m glad this movie exists. I’m glad it shows a blueprint for how to move forward. One step at a time.
Oh, and in case you ever need to do it yourself, it turns out you can bring a typewriter as carry-on.