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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected): Written and directed by Noah Baumbach.  Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, and Grace van Patten.  Running Time: 112 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Noah Baumbach has spent his film career slowly turning himself into a master at taking incredibly immature characters, often set within tragicomically dysfunctional families, and spinning out remarkable tales make us really feel for the hilariously inept people we see.  We identify with them because they reflect so much of what is both pathetically and, at the same time, sweetly flawed in ourselves.  In this regard, his new Netflix-produced work The Meyerowitz Stories fits right in to his typical framework, and is a worthy successor to Frances Ha and Mistress America, even if it doesn’t quite reach the same heights those works did. 
            The authorial nature of the title refers to the broken-up structure of the film itself.  Instead of a smoothly connecting narrative, we only see scenes and snippets of the intersecting lives of the royally fucked-up Meyerowitz clan, identifiable by the title cards separating the segments focused on a particular character.  These “chapters,” after a fashion, take us through a series of events that bring together the disparate members of the family, which include the aging father, Harold (Dustin Hoffmann), his alcoholic fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thomson), his three children from his three previous wives- Danny, Matthew, and Jean (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel)- and Danny’s college-bound daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten). 

            Centered primarily around a health scare that, briefly, has everyone convinced Harold is finally about to die, one Pandora’s Box after another of unresolved mental problems, unhealthy family dynamics, and traumas is opened up and the horrors within unleashed.  Driven by the wholly self-centered attitude of their father, each of the children have clearly spent years finding their own ways to bottle up their angers, insecurities, and fears, but when the final specter of Death reveals itself, they suddenly find there’s no hiding to be had anymore. 

            Dustin Hoffman’s Harold, an aging sculpture, is the biggest scene-chewer and scene-stealer of the whole affair.  He embodies, in so many ways, the stereotypical narcissistic, narrow-minded “artist” taken to a miserable extreme.  He talks and rambles and gets angry about everyone and everything.  If you aren’t able to appreciate “the work” (his way of referring to his artistic career) you aren’t worth his time, so fuck off.  I was a bit bothered by this at first- his long-winded explanations of EVERYTHING and his incessant jumping from one topic to another at the drop of a pin come off at first like lazy exposition on the part of the screenplay- but it soon becomes clear how central this is to his character.  Harold can’t NOT keep talking about this and that, complaining and bemoaning that and this, because to pause for long enough might force him to accept that, just maybe, he was never that great an artist to begin with, and he’s not as famous as his peers for a reason. 

            As excellent as Dustin Hoffman is, though- and this is the best performance he’s given us in years- the cast is astoundingly good across the board.  Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller (Older Brother Danny and Younger Brother Matthew), much like Will Ferrell, are odd cases of actors; they’ve always specialized in comedy, yet I’ve nearly always found them far more interesting and, well, better in their non-comedic projects.  Ben Stiller has been good in a lot of movies before (I seem to be one of the only people left alive who recalls the underrated Walter Mitty), but this is easily one of his best roles.  Adam Sandler has never been better, period. 

            For all the outlandishness the Meyerowitz people display, this movie thrives on those subtle moments that reveal what lies beneath the surface of each person.  Matthew talks often about how he’s managed to get over his issues with his Dad, and one subplot revolves around him rather callously pushing to sell off the family house and every bit of artwork Harold ever made.  And yet, in one of the film’s finest scenes, the implications of all this hit him in a rush, and the insecurities he still has coupled with his equally-real love for his father come rushing out.  Emma Thompson puts on a ceaselessly happy façade even as her husband lies in a coma, but every so often her deep despair seeps out without warning.  Danny has a terrible relationship with his father and brother, but has a wonderfully genuine connection with his daughter, Eliza.  Indeed, Eliza’s very existence seems to be a small ray of hope the film proffers to the viewer; a sign that, even in the midst of such pain and hurt and angst, a whole person can still emerge from all that; happy, healthy, and ready to take on the world. 

            You’ll note I haven’t said much yet about the daughter, Jean, even though Marvel gives a performance that matches in quality that of everyone else.  This is, unfortunately, because the film is never nearly as interested in exploring her character, past, and issues as it is those of her brothers, who are the focus of most of what happens over the course of the movie.  Even when she does get a chapter title of her own, late in the movie, it’s only so we can learn about an episode of sexual harassment she experienced as a teenager.  And even then, rather than take this opportunity to finally dive into her psyche, the moment merely ends up serving as another opportunity for her brothers to make it all about them and their issues. 

            I found this aspect of the movie especially disappointing given how amazingly well Baumbach has written complicated, struggling female characters in his earlier movies.  Given what I’d previously seen of his work, I would have assumed going into this movie that Jean’s story and development would have been the topper.  That this is not the case, or even that she does not seem to get even billing with her brothers, strikes me as an unfortunate self-inflicted wound that keeps what is a very, very good movie from being a truly great one. 

            But don’t let that deter anyone from seeing this- The Meyerowitz Stories IS a very, very good movie, one of the best family dramas of 2017, and absolutely worth seeing.  Just make sure you have a strong drink on hand before pressing the “start” button. 

-Noah Franc 

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