A man with Tourette’s syndrome. An ill-fated orphan who goes viral. An ape — and, unrelated, a man whose behavior is indistinguishable from that of an ape. (Seriously.) These are side characters who provide absurdist comedic moments in a scene or two of The Square, the occasionally dark, occasionally surreal new comedy from Ruben Östlund.
The Square is one of the funniest films of the year, for those who appreciate this style of humor. It’s ideal for fans of Toni Erdmann or, of course, Force Majeure, which nearly missed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film three years ago.
The Square has a broader scope than Force Majeure, though it similarly deals with the absurdities of modern society. It takes place in and around an art museum in Stockholm, where Christian (Claes Bang) serves as curator. This prestigious position allows him such luxuries as a shiny Tesla, an ornate apartment, and the attention of pretty women like Anne (Elisabeth Moss). It also comes with a fair amount of responsibility, which does not mean Christian always behaves responsibly. As the film begins, Christian begins marketing a new exhibition from an Argentine artist, known as “The Square” — a “safe space” of sorts where people are supposedly all equal and have a complete obligation to help each other out.Force Majeure told the story of a father who fled an oncoming avalanche instead of protecting his wife and children. The Square is similarly preoccupied with the degrees to which we do or not help those in need around us, both in casual and very dire scenarios. The film introduces us to many beggars, who occasionally get some cash but mostly go ignored. In The Square, as in life, offering assistance to strangers sometimes feels good, and sometimes turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth. We’re often invited to believe in karma, but so rarely rewarded accordingly.
The film’s inciting incident is a random act of kindness — helping a woman deal with an apparent abuser — which turns into a random act of robbery. Christian loses his wallet and phone. He very clearly has the means to replace these things easily, but instead he and a co-worker hatch a half-cocked scheme for justice. Much to our surprise, it ends up working like a charm — and then, soon, backfires horribly.
The Square is drenched in irony. Christian is promoting a piece of art that demands we help our fellow man with any request. That’s not really feasible in real life. Randomly, it seems, he helps a few beggars while denying others. He’s more likely to help when he’s just had a bit of luck himself. At other times, he’s too self-centered to notice or care much about the hardships of others. This should be relatable to just about everyone — it’s impossible to help every single person in need. If we did that, we’d give away all our money and lose our jobs and be on the streets ourselves.
Östlund doesn’t demonize Christian or anyone else in his film, nor does he portray the beggars in too flattering a light. The adorable blonde orphan who has a surprising impact on Christian’s life isn’t real — she’s click bait, dreamed up by a couple of social media marketing hacks for the museum. Christian struggles to set an example for his young daughters, to avoid hurting Anne’s feelings (too much) after a one night stand, and to deal honorably with a careless fuck up at work. It’s fair to call him a bit of an egomaniac, but he generally tries to do the right thing, whether that’s for selfish reasons or karmic ones.
Accompanying this fairly straightforward series of mishaps are some strange detours with thematic relevance. In one vignette, an upscale art crowd struggles with how to handle an extremely disruptive patron. Everyone wants to be PC and respect his disability, but he’s also completely ruining the event. Do an invidivual’s needs take precedence over the comfort of many? The answer is, of course, complicated. The Square‘s marketing centerpiece is a piece of performance art for the museum’s wealthy donors. The artist’s name is Oleg, and he, too, explores the limits of politeness and how much we’re willing to let others suffer to avoid suffering ourselves. (Oleg is playing by Terry Notary in a strikingly physical performance. It’s certainly one of the most attention-grabbing and mesmerizing turns this year.)
The Square is less about plot than theme. No act of charity is as satisfying as the characters hoped it would be — but (I think) what Östlund is saying with this film is that we must keep trying to help others and do the right thing when we can. Due to some bad publicity, “The Square” exhibit never opens, perhaps in part because it was always doomed to fail. People cannot be completely trusting and open and selfless, not even for a few minutes in a “safe space” at a museum. It’s just not our nature. Notary’s Oleg shows us the savagery that occurs when we lose our humanity.
Another film set in the art world is Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected). After teaming up with Greta Gerwig to brilliant effect in Frances Ha and Mistress America (the 9th best film of 2014 and the very best film of 2015), Baumbach is back to his The Squid And The Whale mode. Like that film, this one is about a narcissistic but frustrated artist/father and the effect he has on his sons. This time around, the father is Harold Meyerowitz, played by Dustin Hoffman.
In The Meyerowitz Stories, the sons are all grown up — physically, at least. But they still have some requisite daddy issues holding them back. One is Danny (Adam Sandler), who abandoned his gift for music due to intense stage fright, possibly caused by his father’s unending criticism. Matthew (Ben Stiller), meanwhile, has started his own successful finance firm, but Harold also makes him feel like a sell-out. Both sons come from different mothers, as does Harold’s daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). The supporting cast also includes Candice Bergen, Adam Driver, and Emma Thompson.
The story that unfolds is one part The Royal Tenenbaums, one part classic Woody Allen. It’s funny and witty and occasionally moving, and features what is probably the least obnoxious Adam Sandler performance ever. The Meyerowitz Stories might have better Oscar chances if A) it didn’t debut on Netflix, and B) Dustin Hoffman hadn’t just been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment. It seems unlikely that anyone with iffy sexual behavior on public record is going to be taking home any trophies this year. The Meyerowitz Stories feels perfectly at home on Netflix, anyway, since its episodic nature almost makes it feel like a TV series.