The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)

20 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In my review of Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding,” I praised the film but I concluded by saying “I’m just glad I’m not Margot’s son.” I can say something similar about the Meyerowitzes in this review of Baumbach’s latest film “The Meyerowitz Stories,” subtitled “New and Selected”—something like, “I’m just glad these guys aren’t my problem.”

But my review of “The Meyerowitz Stories” is still positive. I don’t know how Baumbach is able to find the craft out of creating stories with such shallow, neurotic, sometimes despicable people, such as with “The Squid and the Whale,” “Greenberg,” and of course “Margot at the Wedding,” but I was getting used to his more simple, (mostly) gentler approaches with “Frances Ha,” “While We’re Young,” and “Mistress America.” But here he is back to form with the Netflix comedy-drama “The Meyerowitz Stories,” a film that takes the “fun” out of “dysfunctional family.”

Showing in a chronological series of vignettes featuring the same set of characters (hence, the titular “stories”), we have the Meyerowitzes, a family now in instability (actually, I think they’ve always been in instability). Retired-sculptor-turned-art-professor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) and his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) want to sell the old New York apartment and move upstate. This is news to Harold’s oldest son Danny (Adam Sandler), who had hoped to crash at the apartment for a while after his 18-year-old daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) goes off to college. He’s recently divorced and his stay-at-home-dad status is changing, and to add more salt in the wound that can only be described as “underachieving dissatisfaction,” he’s a failed musician too. Danny and his clinically-depressed sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who is even more pathetic than Danny in ways that are at the same time explained and unexplained as the film continues, were often in the shadow of their half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), Harold’s son from his second marriage. Matthew is the one with all the accomplishments, having gone into finance in LA rather than art in NY. That was probably a good move, because Harold and Danny often complain about their failures in art. Harold particularly, when he’s not boasting about Matthew’s successes, is not afraid to let everyone know about his own self-pity, going on about how he felt his sculptures deserved a wider audience.

Needless to say, these people need some serious help. Harold is an obsessive boor who lets out his arrogance on his family, Danny is pathetically seeking his affection, Matthew seems fine but has his own demons as well, and Jean, well…no comment. We gradually find out more about these people with each passing vignette (all of which are labeled by the character we switch focus to), and it’s mostly done with dialogue. And this is where Baumbach’s skill really shines: as an expert wordsmith who creates biting dialogue out of every uncomfortable situation he can find for his unstable characters. Sometimes it’s sharp and funny, sometimes it’s dark and deep, and mostly, it’s both, showing us there’s more beneath the surface. And he’s also effective in showing the dynamics of this family, particularly in the envy one member feels for another (from another generation) and how the oldest son is slowly but surely becoming like his father, whether he likes it or shouldn’t like it.

By the end of the film, we don’t know where these people are going, but we hope they’re going somewhere far better (and healthier) than they’ve been before.

But “The Meyerowitz Stories” isn’t so serious that you can’t get a laugh, because sometimes, the film is very funny. Dialogue aside, Baumbach finds ways to bitingly satirize both the modern-art and film-school scenes, with Harold’s lackluster art and Eliza’s amateur film projects that are so outrageous that I won’t even explain them in this review; they’re really funny.

Nearly every review is surprised by Adam Sandler’s excellent dramatic turn as Danny in this film, and while they’re not wrong, I never doubted Sandler’s skilled work as an actor…especially since he’s been able to show that in more than a few movies in between his Happy Madison productions. But whatever—Sandler’s great here, doing what he does best as an actor. Dustin Hoffman isn’t afraid to show just how insufferable Harold can be, as well as how feared and respected he can be. Ben Stiller, in his third Baumbach film, is solid as usual. Elizabeth Marvel is impressively messy. And young actress Grace Van Patten brings a new spark and much-needed energy to the proceedings.

I can enjoy “Margot at the Wedding” while thanking God that I don’t have to deal with miserable, excruciating Margot in real life, because the misery and humor made for tender insights and snappy comedy. And I can say the same thing about “The Meyerowitz Stories” and the Meyerowitzes. Baumbach’s material can be a little alienating in some of his films (which is probably why I’ve preferred his Greta Gerwig collaborations a little more), but I can’t deny the power he can deliver when treading through uncomfortable waters. “The Meyerowitz Stories” is effective without having us hate the characters too much.

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