4 November 2017 | Chris Knipp
Baumbach's shot at maturity and warmheartedness
One reviewer, Jessica Kiang, says it evokes "so many other media," theater, short story, TV, she doesn't know why it's a film. She puts her finger on something. This is scattershot, fragmented, and it does that in a sincere and not unsuccessful effort to adopt a warm and comprehensive point of view. This is also perhaps the former Wes Anderson writer's most Wes Anderson film.
It is mainly a decent attempt to be not dry, witty, and cruel like The Squid and the Whale (still an entertaining and watchable film), but, only 12 years later, to be about being an adult, having children, learning to forgive one's father and face his mortality, and so on, and so forth. The "stories" faceting helps to do that, but leave one with a messy, shattered vision. Maybe this is a transition, and that would be from cleverness to something like wisdom, a harder mark to strike.
There are two brothers, the financially successful Matthew (Ben Stiller), and Danny (an unusually straightforward Adam Sandler), once interested in being a musician, but never having done anything, really. Their father Harold (Dustin Hoffman, also straightforward and fine), who was married five times, is a sculptor, but whether he was any good is a question the sons must face. At any rate he taught for 33 years at Bard, where Danny's daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten) studies and is a "promising filmmaker." Or does she just partake of the pretension of the younger generation and its ease with provocation, since her little films are comic-pornographic? There is also Jean, a sister (the surprising Elizabeth Marvel), who was always ignored but does her duty of being present nonetheless and has one speech of protest.
A storyline that strikes home for some of us is the one that finds Harold's career highpoint in a box in storage at the Whitney Museum because yes, they once did buy one of his sculptures. And yet Harold, struggling with age and failing powers, deceives himself into thinking inclusion in a Bard faculty show is a "retrospective" or that a photo album of his sculptures will lead to one, and that will give his career a boost. This is about male ego and self-deception but also about sons coming to terms with the real size of their once enormous and threatening and detestable fathers.
The film isn't heavily plot-driven, and that's a good thing, though it has solid plot elements, especially revolving around hospitals for Harold, who has a life-threatening crisis, and for Danny, who faces up to the need for a hip replacement. Matthew takes care of it, even to a private room, and this is one of numerous sequences about the brothers' rapprochement. Any rapprochement with Harold is fraught because however diminished, he remains as annoying as he ever was. In an exaggeratedly frank speech by Danny at the faculty show, which Harold can't attend because he's in the hospital, Danny says he hopes his father was a good artist because if he wasn't, "he was just a prick."
This strikes a false note, due to Sandler's unusually straightforward delivery here. This is a new Sandler, to go with the new, more humane and serious Baumbach. This is far from his wittiest film and as Kiang's comment hints, there are ordinary, sit-com- ish elements, but there are home truths about growing up that make the less sprightly texture seem worthwhile. This is all about the three main males as finely played by Hoffman, Sandler, and Stiller, but there are other good actors including Candice Bergen, Emma Thompson, Judd Hirsch, even a cameo by Sigourney Weaver that becomes one of several recurrent jokes that help keep the tone light.
This was at Cannes, then the NYFF Main Slate, but released on Netflix 13 Oct. Watched online, but in Paris. Also showing in US theaters, including IFC and Landmark. Metacritic rating 79%. There's a lot to cover here in a thumbnail review. It takes a while to get going, but when it does, it feels warm and kind, and you appreciate its sincerity and goodwill. And yes, Dustin Hoffman and Adam Sandler are good even if Ben Stiller is the closest to a grownup, among the males anyway. Watched 4 Nov.