THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Emma Thompson, Judd Hirsch, Rebecca Miller, Candice Bergen, Adam Driver, Gayle Rankin, Sakina Jaffrey
Running Time: 1:50
Release Date: 10/13/17 (limited; Netflix)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 12, 2017
If you don't feel even a little uncomfortable while watching a Noah Baumbach movie, it's very possible that parts of your life could provide material for one. The filmmaker specializes in characters who are broken, insecure, uncertain of their place in the world, usually outsiders in one way or another, and incapable of seeing any way out of their predicament. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) gives us an entire family of such characters.
The film doesn't show us the entirety of that family. There are mentions of the father's ex-wives—two of them the mothers of his children. We only meet one of the exes, though. One hopes the others aren't in the film because they were smart enough to get as far away as possible from the man, but who really knows? Maybe there are other satellites of misery orbiting around these children, who are very much adults now but who still behave like the angry, sad, and—not to put too fine a point on it—unloved kids that they always have been.
What we know is that it wasn't easy for the elder kids, having to deal with a stepmother who didn't have the same maternal affection for her stepchildren that she had for her biological son. She's the ex who appears here, briefly, to offer her apologies for the way she treated her stepchildren. It's a few decades late, and the apology isn't offered to the two people who could benefit from hearing it. Considering how much pent-up resentment and regret that there is in this family, though, the belated and indirect apology is, perhaps, the best for which any member of the family can hope.
Instead, most of the family's dealings have to do with the father. He's Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor whose time and fame never came, although that hasn't stopped him from working, trying to get showings at galleries, and sniping jealous comments about his contemporaries behind their backs. That miserable attitude was and remains the normal of Harold's interactions with the world.
That, of course, includes his children. Danny (Adam Sandler, in an uncharacteristically subdued and effective performance), the eldest, has brought his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) into New York City to visit her grandfather before she goes off to college. For his part, Danny will be living with his father for a bit, since he's recently divorced (Add his ex-wife to the list of exes whom we never meet), unemployed (He was a stay-at-home dad), and currently without a place to live. Danny has some considerable musical talent but never really sought out a career in it—partly because of becoming a father but mostly because Harold was never too supportive. Why would the artist of the family want another artist in the family with whom to compete?
Since Harold's most recent wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) will be out of the country for a week or so, it gives the two men a chance for some father-son time. Neither man seems too enthusiastic about the idea.
Their time together is the first of the several segments in Baumbach's screenplay. The next introduces Harold's youngest son Matthew (Ben Stiller), who's in town on business. At one point in his life, he had some artistic ambitions, either acting or comedy, but Harold's treatment of Danny's musical ambitions carried over to all three of his children. During their time together, Matthew and Harold talk over lunch (after switching restaurants, because Harold thinks the staff at the original choice was rude to him), but by this point, we know that Harold really isn't capable of talking to anyone. The "conversations" between him and his sons essentially amount to the sons trying to tell their father about their lives, while Harold babbles on about his work, his career, his artistic legacy, and how terrible it is that none of those things have been recognized.
There's a third child: a daughter, named Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), whom Baumbach basically treats in the same manner that her family does. She is mostly silent, as everyone else talks around her, and almost blends into the background of the frame. The choice is clearly intentional, especially later in the film when she becomes a more concrete part of the family dynamic.
It's a subtle and clever way of telling us a lot about the character without her or anyone else saying a word on the subject. A parenthetical sequence of sorts gives Jean a chance to reveal something about herself—telling a story about passive sexual abuse by one of Harold's old friends. Immediately, her brothers take over the sequence, plotting and executing revenge against the now feeble man (There's a lot of Harold's influence of the sons in this scene, particularly how they won't listen to what Jean has to say on the matter). Even in what should be Jean's own moment to shine, her family won't allow it.
Baumbach can be caustic with his characters, or he can make his characters corrosive forces in the lives of everyone they encounter. It's easy to accuse him, his characters, or both of being unsympathetic or even misanthropic. He can also, though, be precise in showing how the attitudes and behaviors of his characters are the direct results of bad luck, bad upbringings, or bad habits. We get a lot of those qualities in the characters of The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). The key is that we can tell these characters have had little control over the various emotional problems with which they've been dealing for most of their lives, but in spite of that, they desire more from and want to better themselves. Baumbach seems to want those things for them, too.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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