Release Date: October 13, 2017
Director: Noah Baumbach
Runtime: 110 minutes
Is there an actor more in need of a critical comeback than Adam Sandler? Mostly lamented, he occasionally ventures into films like Punch Drunk Love, Funny People, and Men Women and Children and shows that all that boyhood absurdity and bravado covers for some real dramatic talent. And if there’s a director who is ideally suited to pull out that delicate balance of drama and comedy in fragile masculinity, it is Noah Baumbach.
All the men in this film are fragile; Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is an aging sculptor who gets sick and wishes his kids had succeeded in the arts where he never could; Danny (Sandler), Harold’s eldest son, has recently separated from his wife and is about to send his daughter to college, while looking at the prospect of working for the first time, having spent his daughter’s life as a stay-at-home-dad. Matthew (Ben Stiller), on the other hand, is a banker of some success who hasn’t visited his father in years. The three men all put on the veneer of being content with their situations while covertly having no clue where their lives are headed.
A triptych of women appear in supporting roles to counter the men. Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is Harold’s daughter and suffered all the awful things that one might expect in that world. Maureen (Emma Thompson) is Harold’s fourth wife; she has a drinking problem and embodies the worst aspects of step-parenthood. Finally, Eliza (newcomer Grace Van Patten), Danny’s daughter, is an aspiring filmmaker with all the pretentious impulses one would expect. The women don’t get as much to do, unfortunately, but the theme here is that they take life as what it is instead of expecting something better.
Baumbach’s recent output has all been distinctly happier than his first few films, but the underlying personal crises seem more devastating. Where the characters of The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg are totally detestable, Baumbach’s last four films feature remarkably likeable characters, despite all their flaws and poor character traits. They represent the worst aspects of their archetypes while trying finding the humanity therein and coming to harsh realizations about what it takes to be happy.
The world is dark and cynical, and the only way out is to stop pretending that everything will be okay and just make the best of what you have. This, a staple of Baumbach’s oeuvre, is what allows Sandler and Stiller to shine. They are so easily detestable, and most movies try to delight in that without showing that under the façade is something honest and beautiful, if they’ll only tap into it.