Noah Baumbach makes his return to Netflix on 6th December with the highly-anticipated Marriage Story, currently in select UK cinemas and starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a married couple who are drifting apart. Baumbach’s previous Netflix offering, The Meyerowitz Stories, also looked at a family where the parents had divorced, and his 2005 film The Squid and the Whale delved into this topic even further.
Divorce is not necessarily the central theme of The Meyerowitz Stories, but every one of the family members has been shaped by it in some way. At the head of the family is Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a mischievous and infuriating man with an ego the size of Manhattan. Now on his third marriage to Maureen, played by a sublime Emma Thompson, Harold has a slightly awkward and competitive relationship with each of his three grown-up children. Echoes of Jeff Daniels’ father figure in The Squid and the Whale are dotted throughout his character, with Harold even using the same phrases as him at certain points. Constantly aloof and unswervingly bitter towards other people’s perceived successes, Harold somehow still manages to bring his dysfunctional family together.
His two sons also have broken, or slowly failing, marriages. Matthew, played by Ben Stiller, is a hugely successful businessman who just simply doesn’t understand his child or wife, and seems to rarely spend much time with them. Danny, played by Adam Sandler, also finds himself recently single, however it seems that his marriage was over long before the separation. His role as a stay-at-home father was also outgrown long ago, but he clings on to it desperately. Now that his daughter has left for college, he finds himself homeless, jobless and directionless. Sandler gives one of his funniest and sweetest performances as Danny; it is a joy to see him play someone with real vulnerability and still land jokes perfectly. He may not be the family’s patriarch, but he’s undeniably the glue that brings the three siblings closer together.
Danny is so concerned with ensuring that his daughter is safe and happy that his life has seemingly been on hold ever since she was born. He ignores a recurring hip problem and frequently puts himself down when in the company of others. That’s why the ending is so brilliantly uplifting, as we see Danny heading off on a mini-adventure of his own and also potentially securing himself a date for when he returns.
Completing the trio of siblings is the sublime Elizabeth Marvel as Jean, the sister people often pushed to one side due to being different. She is awkward and unbelievably deadpan; almost a comedy version of The Royal Tenenbaums’ Margot. When she reveals her dark secret of being abused when she was younger, her brothers are shocked and try, in their own terrible way, to jump to her defence. But it is too little too late and she has already come to terms with it by herself, as none of her family seemingly ever paid much attention to her before.
The smaller roles in the film are just as brilliant as the central roles, with a hilarious cameo from Adam Driver, and Emma Thompson as the heavy-drinking, pot-smoking Maureen. Serving up half-raw seafood to her step-children, she’s blissfully unaware that they realise she has most definitely not given up her drinking habit, even if she has successfully fooled Harold. It’s genuinely good fun to see Thomson let her hair down and play around with a ridiculous character.
Aside from just how incredible the ensemble cast are, the script itself is near faultless. As heavily dialogue-led as The Squid and the Whale but hugely funny, every scene reveals something about each of these complex characters. There are fantastic one-liners alongside perfect physical comedy, ridiculous chase scenes, and then suddenly beautifully heartbreaking moments. It may ultimately be a comedy for the most part, and it may feature some truly oddball characters, but The Meyerowitz Stories is most memorable for its heart and warmth. Where The Squid and the Whale offered glimpses of love, this shows love in all its ridiculous and often infuriating forms. Harold loves his children but has no idea how to show it, Danny adores his daughter so much that he has forgotten who he really is, and Matthew loves his father and siblings but just finds them to be so directionless that he doesn’t know how to communicate with any of them.
While Baumbach’s Marriage Story appears to be closer in type to The Squid and the Whale than Meyerowitz, it will be interesting to see how the director builds on their familial foundations. It is clear that he has found his niche and, so far, there has not been a misstep.