Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach have made frequent appearances at the New York Film Festival over the years, and in 2012 they turned up together with Frances Ha, an ebullient career high for both that led to further professional and personal collaboration (they’re partners in life and subsequently made the equally great Mistress America). The easy narrative about Gerwig’s collaborations with Baumbach is that as his co-writer and star, she lightened up his misanthropy until it resembled something that might be described as a kind of rueful effervescence. There’s some truth to this reading; both movies are among Baumbach’s best, in no small part because of Gerwig. But even Baumbach’s darkest pre-Gerwig hours have a lot of humanity to them, like a less curated, more verbal version of the funny-sad films of Baumbach’s buddy and alternate collaborator Wes Anderson (they co-wrote The Life Aquatic, and Anderson produced The Squid and the Whale).
The Anderson connection is especially strong to The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which has shown at NYFF ahead of its debut in theaters and on Netflix on October 13th and vaguely resembles The Royal Tenenbaums. Both films operate within a non-specific literary framing device: Tenenbaums begins with a book checked out of a library, then narrated by Alec Baldwin, while Stories is, indeed, assembled like a short compendium of short stories, underlined by the titular parenthetical. To some degree, Meyerowitz clan inverts the familial dynamic of the Tenenbaums, who are a group of gifted children who never quite fulfilled their promise, poorly parented by “kind of a son of a bitch.” Here, the one-time genius of now-mild repute is patriarch Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), whose artistic temperament as a sculptor (really mostly an art professor) crowds out any inclinations of, his son Danny (Adam Sandler), his daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), or his other son Matt (Ben Stiller). The movies even share Stiller, playing in both a financial whiz. And of course, dad is still kind of a son of a bitch.
But for those fearful of another Margot at the Wedding – underappreciated for its bracing darkness – Meyerowitz may count as a relief. Neglect and parental missteps alternate with real warmth, as the movie contrasts Harold’s sons’ approaches to dealing with him. Danny, played with real sensitivity by Sandler, wants to make good and spend time with the guy even when he treats Matt as the “better” son, while Matt – who sees no favor in how he’s treated – tries his best to avoid Harold all together. Jean is given something like the short shrift by the script, which follows Danny and Matt separately before uniting them in a final all-family story, but Marvel brings her to life beautifully.
So many Baumbach characters take a certain kind of ease in discussing and second-guessing the past – a potent, very recognizable mix of self-analysis and nostalgia (this is a filmmaker whose debut featured a recent college graduate snapping, “I’m nostalgic for thing that happened yesterday”). Meyerowitz has plenty of physical details to enhance that feeling; shelves of old VHS tapes at the family home, an errant pair of sunglasses no one will claim, reappearances of old friends and rivals. It goes further, though, when bringing this condition to life through its performances, as in the scene where Danny duets on the piano with his teenage daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), singing a private family ditty about his beloved “genius girl.” Baumbach treats this relationship delicately; when he cuts to the two of them hugging early on, the suddenness is heartbreaking. It’s been established that Sandler can emerge from the backslapping laziness of his self-generated projects to do great work for other filmmakers, but this may be his best performance yet, using touchstones of his persona (outbursts, silly songs, dressing down) to lovely effect. Stiller, too, deepens his image as he seethes through the process of trying to impress his father. This isn’t Baumbach’s funniest movie, but his wit renders him incapable of pure gentility. If it’s a little softer than some of his darkest or most hilarious movies, it’s made with just as much confidence, even wisdom of a sort. “There’s no catharsis in shouting at a dying old man,” one of the siblings observes at one point.
Lady Bird, Gerwig’s first movie as a solo writer-director, is also funnier than Meyerowitz, as if Gerwig took custody of their joint movies’ zippiness while Baumbach took the melancholy stuff. There’s a slightly heightened comic energy to this coming-of-age story about Christine (Saorsie Ronan), who has rechristened herself Lady Bird for her senior year of high school in Sacramento. As a solo writer, Gerwig retains her deft way with meta-nostalgic one-liners (“Just once I’d like the song ‘New York Groove’ to be playing and have it apply to my life,” says Lady Bird, who has never been to New York), and as a director she has a knack for goosing laughs with cuts. Yet despite some ace jokes (there’s a bonkers scene with a gym teacher taking over drama club), zingy dialogue, and a few stagy entrances and exits – or really, alongside them – this is a deeply felt film.
Lady Bird has a contentions relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), and their disagreements flare up, rather than constantly burning – there are moments of startling tenderness in between the screaming fights, even if they’re introduced through a first scene where Lady Bird throws herself out of a moving car to end an argument. Metcalf gives a prickly and heartbreaking performance, and she’s not the only one supplied with grace notes: Almost every character gets one or another, even bit parts like character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson’s role as theater director at the male counterpart to Lady Bird’s Catholic school, or the nun (Lois Smith) who occasionally counsels our heroine.
These characters could easily get lost in a less assured film. Lady Bird is set over the course of about a year, a common timeframe that plenty of movies trip over; it’s an awkward amount of ground to cover in ninetysomething minutes (Meyerowitz covers a similar span by breaking itself into mostly-continuous sections). But Gerwig has a sharp sense of how to capture the accumulation of little moments, and makes the sheer volume of time work in her favor. Lady Bird resents Sacramento and can’t wait to get out – she has designs on east coast colleges that she can neither afford nor, perhaps, get into – and the variety of short scenes Ronan plays paint a complicated portrait of a city that’s both tedious (especially for a lower-middle-class family struggling to fit with more moneyed neighbors) and her character’s whole world. Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy betray affection for the city by shooting it beautifully, even as Lady Bird dispatches zingers making fun of its Midwest-of-California status.
It’s entirely possible that this New York Film Fest will mark a point of creative divergence for Gerwig and Baumbach. His next movie is apparently a divorce story with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, while in her press conference, she answered the usual “what’s next?” question by reiterating that while she’s still interested in acting, she wants to keep making her own films as a writer-director. Plenty of creative partnerships that produce something as great as Mistress America would be diminished by moving back to solo projects. These two, though, seem to be dividing and conquering. They’ve made two of the best movies of the year.