Noah Baumbach’s uniquely vague take on Judaism
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As evidenced by The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

I may not be the best authority to be writing about the filmography of writer-director Noah Baumbach since I’ve only seen one of his movies and the most recent one at that, but I’ll give it a go anyway. His latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) was just released on Netflix and it’s a talent-filled tough nut to crack. I’d categorize it as an answer to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Both films are about a group of three children (two brothers and one sister) who grew up emotionally stunted because of an egotistical and absent father.

I’m not surprised at the likenesses as Baumbach and Anderson have collaborated before on The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox. And while Anderson is the master of general quirk among a wide range of different characters, Baumbach is the master of urban neuroses and quirk among characters who are vaguely Jewish.   

    

 

 

What does “vaguely Jewish” mean? It means a lot of his characters are obviously Jewish (played by Jewish actors), but in name and behavior only. You’ve got characters with surnames like Berkman (The Squid and the Whale), Greenberg (Greenberg), Leevee (Frances Ha), Schrebnick (While We’re Young), and yes, Meyerowitz. All these characters are flawed and neurotic in their own Woody Allen-esque ways, but we never see them doing anything blatantly Jewish. There’s no wrapping of tefillin or sitting down to a Shabbat dinner in a Baumbach movie.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that; Jews are much more than just their religious practices. We’ve built an entire culture and, as a byproduct, stereotypes that go beyond the traditional customs and Baumbach has expertly tapped into that. Perhaps this is a product of Baumbachs’s upbringing since his father was Jewish and his mother was Protestant. He probably the “best of both worlds” so-to-speak and homogenized them in his filmmaking style and maybe even his personal life, but on that front we can only guess.

In any case, this vague Judaism is prevalent in The Meyerowitz Stories, with the mostly Jewish cast of Dustin Hoffman, Adam, Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Judd Hirsch. The film follows the reunion of siblings Danny (Sandler in one of the best performances of his career), Matthew (Stiller), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) Meyerowitz in the wake of their sculptor father, Harold, (Dustin Hoffman) being admitted to the hospital. Danny’s an unemployed musician, Jean works for Xerox, and Matthew is a successful money manager of some sort, but they are all drawn back to their father who constantly gripes about his own problems and makes them feel inadequate about their own accomplishments.

He’s selfish with a penchant for favoritism among his children and a maven of what pop culture calls “Jewish guilt”, making them feel obligated to tend to his every neurotic whim despite the fact that he’s essentially ruined each of their lives in some way when it came to their respective emotional upbringings. It makes the film as tragic as it is a hilarious (and there are moments that will make you laugh out loud) rumination on just how crazy family members can drive one another, whether they're Jewish or not. 

Harold is very reminiscent of the infuriating Holocaust survivor father, Vladek, in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. Hoffman’s character is the classic, hard-to-please and disapproving Jewish patriarch who instills his own insanity into his children, despite the fact that it’s never stated he’s Jewish. In this way, Baumbach is much more interested in traditional Jewish psyche than traditional Jewish practices. That’s not to say that he ignores religion completely; there’s a money management character who works for Stiller’s Matthew named Gabe (Matthew Shear), although no one makes an overt comment about it.

In Baumbach’s cinematic world, just like in the real world, Jews simply exist. There’s no extraordinary about that fact in either reality, but then again, there’s something interesting to examine just below the surface of Judaism and the people born into it. Are Jews predisposed to certain types of behavior or ways of thinking? That’s the vagueness of this director’s view on Judaism, the uncertainties of the Jewish mind rather than the certainties of Jewish tradition.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Adam Sandler

Dustin Hoffman

Ben Stiller

Netflix

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