NYFF Film Review: THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES Explores Patriarchy with Light Humor
The Meyerowitz Family, mostly-well-to-do Upper West Siders, are led by aging, narcissistic patriarch Harold, played with tender stubbornness by Dustin Hoffman. Towards the twilight of his life and sculpting career, Harold and his three children from different marriages get together, separately then together, in a series of vignettes celebrating nothing in particular, to weave a surprisingly humanistic and believable tale of deeply-flawed humans acting as their own, and each other’s, worst enemies.
The film is The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), by talkie indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach (who writes, produces, and directs), and features a star-studded cast to go toe-to-toe with Hoffman, including Emma Thompson as his boozy, fourth wife, Candice Bergen as one of the exes, Adam Sandler as his older son Danny, Ben Stiller as the prodigal son Matthew, and smaller roles by Judd Hirsch, Adam Driver and Sigourney Weaver. Told as a series of chapters devoted to each of the children (with emphasis commensurate to their order of importance within Harold’s heart), a complicated picture of screwed up individuals emerges that reminds us of the old adage that every world is an oyster.
The Meyerowitz’s “problems” can hardly be described as such. They eat shark fin for dinner, sing songs that they wrote around the piano after a meal, and adorn their Manhattan townhouses with rows of books longer than most New Yorkers’ bedrooms. They each have their quirks, including Danny’s notable limp and a perhaps-too-close friendship with his college-bound daughter, Maureen, the boozy wife’s signature lunettes from Emma Thompson’s days as a Harry Potter soothsayer and her long garments with excessive beads, and Matthew’s stuck-up greediness and intense daddy issues, not to mention short-man syndrome. And then there is Harold, whose most notable quirk is, well, himself.
The family members circle around each other, engaging in mundane tasks like eating lunch or visiting an art gallery. Each has their own self-involved, narrow issues to deal with, the process of which inevitably grates or hinders the other. Harold is frustrated that he did not become a more famous artist. “It is a sad commentary on the culture that simplistic work gets elevated,” he comments, clearly channeling Baumbach’s impatience with sensationalism. Danny is his father’s whipping boy and wishes he had loved him more. Matthew wishes his father had loved him less. Jean, the daughter, wishes people would even notice her, while Maureen, the wife, wants to rid them of the patriarchal home that makes her feel like an outsider.
Woven between the frontispieces are Baumbach’s casual and more serious observations about a plethora of subjects that afflict the modern, middle-aged, privileged mind. Helicopter parenting. Rudeness on the streets of New York. Failed marriages. Grievances at the world. Wine. He is Woody Allen’s heir-apparent, commenting on a city as much as on a tribe, utilizing dry and sarcastic humor, with a constant morbidity and flirtation with death, to get his point across. The characters literally talk past and at each other, and thus Baumbach communicates oodles. The camera switches and cuts to different perspectives, almost dizzying you, when there is physical interaction, and thus Baumbach invites you to consider different perspectives.
At the center of it all are at least a half dozen marvelous performances, though there is definitely a range of talent in The Meyerowitz Stories. I have never bought Sandler as a completely serious actor and in this film he continues to default to the “raise my voice with deadpan face” trick that has become his trademark when he has run out of things to do or say. Stiller, by contrast, abandons those impulses altogether except for maybe one time, and even though his big emotional moment is perhaps overplayed, he is much more convincing. And what to say of Hoffman (I’m burying the lead perhaps), who delivers a thoroughly convincing and heart-warming portrayal of a man losing his abilities. Emma Thompson also brings out a lot of chuckles, even if her character has only one note.
The Meyerowitz Stories stumbles, along with its characters, as it extends into its third act. The best parts of the film come at the outset, when Baumbach’s ingenuity shines and grips you as you learn more and more about these mostly ridiculous individuals. But when illness brings them all together, into the same rooms in extended scenes, the chemistry does not quite work, and the dysfunction seeps out of the make believe. The story seems at odds with itself as to what the proper denouement is, evidenced perhaps by the four or five fade-to-black cut outs that portend an ending that takes several rounds to come. It is not easy to land an airplane that has no clear destination, and Baumbach clearly is still working on that inherently difficult skill.
But it does not mean that The Meyerowitz Stories, which will be released by Netflix on October 13 and plays at the New York Film Festival this week, is not soaring smoothly when it is in the air. Nor does it detract from the delivery that the film effectively provides through sardonic wit and amusement. The problems may be first world and even mundane, but that does not make them any less real or believable, not to speak of somehow oddly relatable.
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