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The Meyerowitz Stories

The Meyerowitz Stories

I have often joked that my childhood was like a Noah Baumbach movie.  

As it turns out, my adulthood is, too. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a wonderful Baumbach tale aimed at what is probably a very small group of people – disaffected 70’s era children of divorce whose parents were intellectuals.  Even if that descriptor doesn’t apply to you, watch this movie anyway. My husband, who does not fall into that category, assures me The Meyerowitz Stories is a good movie even for those who are outside the target audience.

Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is a repeatedly married sculptor who is wrestling with his legacy, or lack thereof, as he faces his twilight years.  He has children from two different relationships, the dysfunctional Danny (Adam Sandler) and the virtual nonentity Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) from his first marriage, and then from his second marriage, rich and successful Matthew (Ben Stiller).  The movie is a series of chapters – short stories, really – as these characters come together for various reasons; the nature and origin of their complicated relationship is revealed over the course of several vignettes.

I have never seen the self-absorption of the generation who raised Generation X captured more fully and accurately than in The Meyerowitz Stories.  Does this generation have a name??  They aren’t Baby Boomers, but they very frequently behave like the worst stereotypes of Baby Boomers. Self-centered, self-interested, self-absorbed.  This was the generation of people for whom Self magazine was invented. Google tells me they’re called “The Silent Generation” but in my fairly extensive experience, they rarely shut up. They celebrate themselves and sing themselves…pretty much constantly.  Somehow because this generation remains mostly unnamed they remain undiscussed, and they seem to elude the blame that some of them deserve.  

I could relate so strongly to both Danny and Jean, Harold’s children from his first marriage, it actually made me feel sick to my stomach at times.  I knew them. I AM them. We first marriage children were little more than a means to an end to our allegedly Silent parents – the end being to show everyone how great they were.  We were brought into this world and told “Well, you’re here, impress me, impress everyone, prove to the world how wonderful I am through your achievements.” But nothing we did was ever good enough to hold onto their interest for long, even on those rare occasions we managed to avoid their criticism and do something right. They oppressively overparented us when they were in the mood, dropped us completely when they weren’t, and if we weren’t up for being parented at the precise moment they happened to be interested in the task, there was hell to pay.

Like Danny and Jean, we were dragged along from home to home, school to school, family to family, career to career (the job-hopping father searching for fulfillment moved many of us from wealth to poverty and back again repeatedly).  The two words that best describe our upbringing are “benign” and “neglect”.  Only it felt malignant. We were given no permanence, no stability, no support, taught no skills and handed no tools yet it was still expected that we would somehow emerge from that chaotic existence not only undamaged, but as superstars. And then when we didn’t, because we were so lost, so forsaken, because we were paralyzed by twin demons of fear and perfectionism, it was still somehow our fault. Our averageness bored our parents, our mediocrity enraged them. We were made to understand that we had failed them by being offspring instead of satellite nations. We didn’t go to the Olympics or win a Nobel Prize, we weren’t famous artists or famous musicians or famous anythings. We grew into disappointments because it was the only thing we were able to grow up into. Parents who expect greatness in every arena are bound to find shortcomings everyplace they look.

Danny and Jean Meyerowitz are disappointments to their father Harold (even though Jean is a successful professional woman and Danny is an excellent father) because no human being could ever have pleased the type of parent many 70’s kids were plagued with. Because we chronically disappointed, we were invariably replaced by the younger child(ren) from the second marriage, who weren’t broken beyond repair and unpleasantly sticky from halfhearted attempts to paste them back together again. For our parents to attempt to right the wrongs would mean admitting that they’d let us down rather than the other way around, so they chose instead to start fresh with a new model.  And they largely succeeded with that, since the parental abilities of a 35 year old outstrip those of a 25 year old and because America was a better place to grow up in 1985 than it was in 1975. But the Harold Meyerowitzes of the world never realized that – or if they did, they never acknowledged it. To them, the golden second family…the Matthews and Heathers and Jennifers of the 1980s simply proved that the failure of the first family was the first family’s fault. If it had been the parenting, you see, the kid from the second marriage would have been a disaster too.  The second families and in some cases the third or even fourth families eventually proved that what our parents said was true.

It was us, not them.

The Meyerowitz Stories seems to indicate that it is little easier to be the child from the second marriage.  IDK. When I’m feeling charitable I believe that it is so, but still, I’d like to try it in my next life.  It undoubtedly comes with its own set of unique problems, but it also seemed to come with dance lessons and adequate clothing and Girl Scouts and living in the same house for more than a year at a time.

I love my children so much.  I remember looking at my oldest child sleeping in my arms not long after he was born and experiencing this tsunami of pure all-encompassing love.  In that moment, I knew in my heart and gut that my parents could never have felt that way about me.  I thought for a long time this meant I wasn’t deserving of that kind of love, but eventually I came to understand they just weren’t capable of it. I don’t know why.  A generational quirk, I suppose.  Whatever happened to them in their life – being born in wartime maybe, or growing up with the spectre of polio looming over them, or as my grandmother believed – that parenting books of the 30’s and early 40’s told parents never to pick their babies up when they cried, the “Silent” generation of Harold Meyerowitz simply wasn’t capable of thinking of others with anything approaching the urgency that they thought about themselves.

It wasn’t just their children they put last, it was every relationship in their lives.  Their parents, their friends, their spouses. They got divorces and quit jobs and moved constantly, always looking for something better, something that more closely resembled the perfection that they deserved.  Because above all else this generation believed, and in many cases still believe, that they deserve only the best. The best job, the best home, the best children, the best grandchildren, the best retirement. And they didn’t think they should have to do anything to earn those things.  Love and loyalty was something that was owed to them and yet (unlike the Baby Boomers, who do have a sense of social responsibility) they were immune from owing those things to anyone else. I suspect this belief is a large part of why we have millions of very lonely and isolated elderly people right now – many of the people Harold Meyerowitz’s age repeatedly threw away relationships over imagined slights and grudges they still stew over and dwell upon.

Just like Harold, many of these folks do not seem to possess the ability to ever put anyone’s needs first.  Even when other people’s needs were small and reasonable, like the needs of a child, and even when they themselves were asking far too much.  Their demands and rejections were unremitting – living with them was like enduring a lifetime of Chinese Water Torture.  And children cannot walk away. As Adam Sandler’s character Danny says, “I wish Dad had done one big unforgivable thing that I could be angry about but instead it’s tiny things every day: drip, drip, drip.” It’s not ever something you can really explain to another person.  If you’ve known it, you’ll know it.  It’s death by a thousand cuts, it’s being pecked to death by ducks.  At some point many of us just cannot take the dripping any more. As soon as we’re able, we walk away and we stay away as much as we possibly can.  The Meyerowitz Stories chronicles what happens when circumstances force us to come back again.

The only complaint I have about The Meyerowitz Stories is how little time they spend telling Jean’s story.  I don’t want to spoil it, but the portrayal of Jean is very nearly as ghostlike as the character herself.  Actress Elizabeth Marvel does what she can with an underwritten part but it wasn’t enough for me.  Even during her own story, while telling her own secret, Jean serves merely as a catalyst for her brothers to take action.  I’d like to think that was an active choice on Baumbach’s part to echo the way Jean is ignored by her family by ignoring her in the movie, but I suspect it was probably just run of the mill sexism. This is really the tale of brothers and a father and there wasn’t much room left for telling a female story about these same themes. Noah Baumbach has written some interesting roles for women and movies centered around female protagonists, so I hope he revisits the subject again in the future.

Until he does, there’s a lot to admire in The Meyerowitz Stories. Amazing performances, particularly from Hoffman and Sandler, with a beautiful moment for Candace Bergen as well.  Not to mention wonderful writing and a compelling storyline – I didn’t know what was going to happen right up until the end of the movie and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time…not often said about character-driven dramas.  Even if your arms aren’t full of parental baggage, even if you did not experience this particular generation gap firsthand, it’s a must see.  The themes of aging parents, ourselves getting older, our children leaving home, that neverending struggle not to repeat the patterns we grew up with, wrestling with a lack of recognition for our life’s work…all subjects that resonate deeply with most of us. 


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Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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18 thoughts on “The Meyerowitz Stories

  1. I think the term your looking for is the “me generation.” There is a Wikipedia entry I’d link to, but it looks like we’ve lost some functionality in the comments, and won’t do it manually in case it contributes to a problem. But the link points to the 1970s and the Baby Boomers, but a lot of the examples are really about adults in the 1970s, with movies like Kramer vs. Kramer. Dustin Hoffman was born in 1937, he’s almost ten years removed from the Baby Boomer generation, so I think the Me Generation straddles the Boomers and the Silent Generation.

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  2. Demographically, they are called the Silent Generation because Nixon referred to them as the “Silent Majority” to contrast them to the attention-getting radicals of the Boomers.

    The Silents were born in the 30’s, which was the perfect time in many ways. The strong growth of the economy and population in the 1950s happened right as they were launching careers and starting businesses. To them, it all seemed easy.

    And yes, the Me Generation was another name for them used primarily in the 70’s. Even though I am a child of the 70’s also, my parents were older than that, old enough to serve in World War II, which is a defining line between Silents and “greatest” generation.

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      • Yes. The 20s were a generally shitty time to live in rural areas — the Roaring 20s was strictly an urban phenomenon — and things got worse in the 30s. The Dust Bowl created ~2.5M economic refugees. ~1.5M American citizens of Mexican descent, mostly rural, were illegally deported. The Klan was declining, but was still active. Plus, as Mike says, the Depression. FDR sent people out to tour the rural areas. The story they sent back was that absent massive federal government action, a Midwestern revolution was a very real possibility. Anecdotally, both of my Iowa grandfathers told me Depression stories, and independently included that both the fascists and the communists got very respectful hearings down at the Grange Hall when they advocated violent overthrow of the government.

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      • My dad certainly had his own baggage from WW2 (his father was killed before birth as I’ve mentioned before). The curious thing is that they just didn’t seem to learn anything from it all. Even as he kinda sorta abandoned me in a rather questionable situation to do whatever it was that was so important for him to do, he was (understandably) raging at the universe for his father not being there for him. It’s hard not to look at that and think “what about me” yet he never seemed to connect the dots between him not having a father (and BTW he had an amazing, wonderful stepfather from the time he was 6 months old) and me not having one.

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    • Yes, in many ways despite the obstacles every generation faces and the particular challenges their generation faces, my parents really had charmed lives so it was really really difficult for them to see the challenges that I faced. Married parents, growing up in the same house their entire childhood, in the same school year after year. That stability. So many opportunities. Their moms could certainly be overbearing/controlling but then they were overbearing/controlling in the exact same way in addition to the other stuff.

      For example my dad got a Corvette for his high school graduation. But neither of my parents bothered to even teach me to drive. It’s just a very odd disconnect since they were both showered with parental attention.

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  3. Was “Journey of Discovery” ever said seriously? By the time I heard the phrase, it was only used derisively, but it strikes me as a phrase that was originally intended to be used For Good, but got pounced on by the other side and mocked because it’s just too on the nose. Like “Politically Correct” or a handful of more recent ones.

    (I still boggle at the number of divorces of first marriages that I witnessed in the 80’s among my classmates.)

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    • I think it’s like “toxic masculinity” and “virtue signaling” – it had a point to it originally but then people took the concept and started to apply it to everything and it lost all meaning and then became a parody of itself.

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      • Kind of beside the point, but…

        If you keep on the lookout for people misusing any term, and file anything you find in your “this term is now useless” argument bank, sure, you’ll find instances.

        When it comes to “toxic masculinity” though, I can think of only one instance of its misuse in a stupid way that would be thus file-able. And that was fundamentally not about the term at all, as it was an argument between ex-partners that was uncomfortable for me to witness, and in which the person misusing the term was obviously drunk. So I don’t think it even counts.

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  4. That’s a gut wrenching review; I’m quite sure I’ll ever watch it.

    As another child of the 70s, I experienced the divorce angst vicariously, but viscerally… more than a few friends (an understatement) saw their lives upended. The lies about it being better for the children don’t wash for we 70s kids. Especially since the vast majority of divorces in our affluent area weren’t for domestic violence (or some such dramatic trauma) but for domestic upgrades.

    Mercifully my parents seemed immune to the malaise that swept over theirs and the boomer’s generations… we children were close enough to it though that we were either tainted or inoculated by it… I’m still trying to work out which.

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    • Yep. There’s no earthly way I’m better off for all that. Not only the divorce, but then your relationships with your parents, particularly the ones who you don’t live with, are then perpetually fraught with strained weirdness that then spills over to a lot of other relationships later on.

      I remember going out with my dad and my half-sister (born in the 1980’s and from the outside seemingly given every privilege ever invented) and my dad said something irritating and she yelled “Oh Dad, SHUT UP” and he had no reaction at all. I couldn’t help but think “JFC I didn’t know we could do that.” (and I of course couldn’t.)

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  5. This is a bullet that I dodged by fractions of an inch. My parents, both born during the war, divorced, but in the eighties when I was a teen and neither remarried quickly And neither had children with the second spouse. But the ugliness was pervasive in a small, incestuous college town like I grew up in. Many friends went through what you describe, with all the painful, predictable results. More than a few of them wished the parents split earlier, not for saving themselves from the wrecks that the adults created but to keep the levels of pain to a dull roar. In any case, bad things end badly. No matter the timing.

    This was a very good review, Kristin.

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    • Thank you for reading it, Aaron!

      I was 9 when my parents divorced and I can imagine that either earlier or later would have been easier. My mom got super wrapped up in dating and then new husband (who was not such a good guy) and the new babies at a time where I really did kind of need more from her. Not so cool to be dropped by your mom for boys, LOL

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      • Well, hitting puberty right in the middle of it all was… not a peach. The big twist in my parent’s story was that it was my mother who left.

        One of the things that always struck me was how much we live our own hell. One good friend of mine in high school was not particularly well off but had parents that were still in love. On the other hand, my parents, while moderately well off, were divorced. Both of us were jealous of the other.

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        • That is entirely true, Aaron, and I hope my navel gazing in this piece and the comments doesn’t indicate otherwise.

          My parents did the best they could with the tools and the situation the world handed them, as do we all. I enjoyed the movie because it represented an experience that I had, that I’d only very rarely seen addressed before (particularly the befuddled cluelessness and the blaming the children for the failures of the parent) and explored that in the piece and then the comments the piece triggered.

          But the grass is always greener and every life has many things in it that are less than ideal.

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  6. I don’t know that I’ll look this movie up, but your review is marvelously insightful. It describes something I have seen in friends and acquaintances, but have not quite understood or seen laid out so well.

    My parents were born in 1942, so they’re on the fuzzy boundary between Silent Generation and Boomer. They recently celebrated their 54th anniversary, so definitely not in the self first, abandon everything and everyone to ‘find yourself’ category. They did marry young, and I, unplanned first child, was born on the fuzzy boundary between Boomer and Gen X, so most of my childhood was the 70s but I never dealt with anything but the frequent moves. Ironically, those weren’t because my dad was constantly looking for something better, but because his company transferred us regularly and he had a very old fashioned idea of company loyalty (one that bit him later on since if corporations are people, they are exactly the kind of Me Generation people you describe above). My sister and I were expected to excel, but that I think was less to give our parents bragging rights than it was the typical upward pressure from parents from blue collar backgrounds who were partly raised by immigrant grandparents, and saw education and achievement as the path to security – something they very much wanted for us. Still, the most lasting lesson I learned from my dad was that it was fine to be ambitious, but the top of the list of thing to be ambitious for should be a happy family.

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    • Yep, I’d say my parents were on the cusp – dad born during wartime, mom right after but before the baby boomer generation. A lot of people were exceptions to the generational trend – like my husband’s parents were very stable and not at all concerned with upward mobility as you’re describing yours.

      I guess it was just interesting to see it all portrayed on the screen in such a familiar way – I really recognized my own experience in the movie. Thanks for reading!!

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