“I’m proud of it,” Noah Baumbach says quietly, the words almost escaping unbidden, as if they had a life of their own.
“A lot of things in this movie have been long gestating. I’ve been thinking about them either consciously or unconsciously, and it can be surprising how it turns out.”
The film in question, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” premiered at Cannes on Sunday, and the writer-director’s belief in it is more than justified.
Funny, moving and psychologically complex, with Baumbach’s always exact observations of human behavior joined to a maturity and warmth, this is a story about the intertwined agonies and satisfactions of family that echoes the director’s breakthrough “The Squid and the Whale” while very much carving out territory of its own.
At its core, “Meyerowitz” is a story of two brothers, successful Los Angeles money manager Matthew Meyerowitz (Baumbach regular Ben Stiller) and his New York sibling Danny (an unexpected Adam Sandler), a musician-house husband whose key accomplishment is being an exemplary dad to his college freshman daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten.)
Separated by a continent, these two men do not get along, and neither one gets on at all with their self-involved, sacred monster father, Harold (an almost unrecognizable Dustin Hoffman), a Manhattan-based sculptor who does not feel he’s ever gotten the professional respect he deserves.
Sitting in a quiet ocean-side cabana at the luxurious Hôtel du Cap, a far remove from the film’s frenetic NYC roots, the thoughtful, articulate Baumbach explains what sparked the film: “Part of what I was interested in is how we all have this gap between who we are and who we think we are, between who we are and the dream of who we might be, who we want to be.”
In the context of family, Baumbach also wanted to deal with the notion that “our parents have such power over us. We’re little, we don’t have a chance. Whether you’re fighting the way your father was or succumbing to him, he’s the person you’re contending with and you’re not being who you are.”
In realizing his ideas, Baumbach was helped by an expert cast, which also includes Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel and Judd Hirsch. “I feel like in a way everyone fit perfectly into their roles,” Baumbach says. “That made it easier for me to direct and meant I could do more — I could press down further.”
The script starts with the notion of two brothers, each introduced in his own story. Baumbach knew he wanted them to be played by Stiller, not a surprise given his appearances in the director’s “Greenberg” and “While We’re Young,” and Sandler, which sort of was.
“I’ve always really liked Adam, there is a very touching quality about him even in his wilder performances,” the director says. “He and Ben have had a kind of friendship, but they never worked together in any major way [Stiller had a small part in ‘Happy Gilmore’] and it was exciting to think of them as siblings.”
Sandler’s moving, unmannered work, the revelation of the film, rewarded Baumbach’s faith. “It was a very felt performance, he was very inside it, and it was exciting to be there with him and watch him do it,” he says. “He had access to real humor, but always within the reality of the character.”
Hoffman too was the director’s first choice. “The more I do this, the more I feel so much of making movies is a conversation I’m having with my childhood movies, the ones that informed my life,” he explains.
“I have such a deep feeling for Dustin as an actor; his movies are the movies of my life, the ones I saw with my family, my friends, my girlfriends. It meant so much to have this icon of those years in the movie.”
Not that Baumbach wanted to make it easy for moviegoers to realize it was Hoffman they were watching.
“I wanted him to look different,” the director acknowledges. “I always loved him with long hair, ‘All the President’s Men’ had great hair. And he’d never had a beard in a movie before. And the stiff way he carries himself, it makes him look heavier. His doctor saw a picture of him and warned him, ‘You can’t carry yourself that way for too long or your back will go out.’”
Hoffman’s inflexible Harold brings back memories of Jeff Daniels’ performance in “The Squid and the Whale.”
“That was the last big fully family film I did, I wanted to take a certain kind of break from it,” Baumbach says.
“The early drafts of ‘Squid’ were about adult siblings and their parents, about how divorce was still a part of their lives, but I went back and wrote the story of the divorce instead.
“Yet that idea has remained with me, I wanted to write about that point where you’re midway through your life, where you’re a parent and you have a parent, how these old things like family myth and pathology can define you.”
To write and direct this story, Baumbach went deeper into his own kind of filmmaking stylization.
“If you look at a movie by Ernst Lubitsch and one by John Cassavetes, they’re very different but they’re both stylized in their own way,” he explains.
“With my films, when the actors realize how stylized the dialogue is, when they find the right musicality and say the lines with exactly the right rhythm, it helps it go deeper; it transforms into something else.
“If the scene plays right, it resonates beyond what I’m even aware of. You don’t hear the different instruments, you hear the song.”