Family Front and Center in Baumbach's New Film The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Family is front and center in Noah Baumbach's new film The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) starring Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Emma Thompson. The film is about the events surrounding the illness of Meyerowitz family patriarch Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a noted sculptor who just missed big time fame in the art world. As his health declines, Harold's ne'er-do-well son Danny (Adam Sandler), shy daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and hot-shot business manager son Matthew (Ben Stiller) flock to his side, all with competing agendas about the fate of Harold's Manhattan townhouse and artistic output. Old sibling jealousies, secrets, grudges, and rivalries bubble to the surface in the process. Their father's illness, however, ultimately brings the siblings together. Amidst the stresses and fast-pace of everyday life, this major life event reminds them of the importance of family, and the preciousness of our time with our loved ones.
And Baumbach does a wonderful job of conveying these themes through his storytelling. One of the strongest things about the movie is its structure. Baumbach breaks the plot into a series of vignettes, each one centered around and named after a different sibling. This format adds to the charm and intimacy of the film, making it feel like a family photo album. Through this format, we are drawn deeply into the siblings' lives, seeing their stories unfold in a highly personal way.
And the characters are a hoot. True to form, Baumbach's characters are eccentric, neurotic, and endearingly human. Emma Thompson as Maureen, Harold's fourth wife, is hysterical. She spends the film strutting around in flowy Bohemian clothes, and wearing big vintage sunglasses, coming to and from exotic locales such as Easter Island, and Havana. The only criticism I have of her performance is that she slips in and out of her famous British accent (the character is intended to be American). Also, her demeanor is decidedly British, and does not always suit the timing and energy of an eccentric, over-educated baby boomer of Manhattan. But she is still hysterically funny as Maureen, and for this, any flaws in her performance can be forgiven.
Ben Stiller also turns in a surprisingly emotional performance as Harold's favorite son, Matthew. As Matthew, he faces jealousy from his other siblings, because he is the most financially successful member of the family. He is arguably the most affected by his father's state, tearing up when speaking of him, and re-examining his life's priorities as a result of his father's sickness. This performance is a big departure for Stiller, who is most known for doing broad comedies like There's Something About Marry, and Tropic Thunder. It is jarring to see him tear up on screen. I give him a lot of credit for stretching himself artistically, and for showing his audience a different side of himself.
Another strong performance is given by Elizabeth Marvel, who plays Harold's daughter Jean. Her performance is subtle, but you are nonetheless moved by her tenderness, and devotion to her father. One monologue she has about a long held secret concerning her father's friend is particularly touching.
And Dustin Hoffman of course turns in a solid performance as the patriarch Harold. Hoffman portrays Harold as narcissistic, neurotic, bitter, and difficult to a fault. In one scene, Harold and Matthew go to three different lunch places before settling on one to his liking. Harold Meyerowitz is the sun in a solar system of relatives who revolve around him, competing for his attention. One has to wonder why his children are so devoted to such an unlikable man. But in spite of this, Hoffman still wins over the audience with his vulnerability, and signature humor.
I really liked many aspects of the filmmaking. The pacing was terrific: each scene was concisely written and edited without any lags, or extraneous material. But that said, Baumbach took time when it was necessary. At two important monologues in the film, the camera stood completely still, so that the audience could really digest the characters' words, and delivery. This stillness is rare in our era of filmmaking where directors want to shoot their films with the fast-pace and excitement of a music video. So the stillness Baumbach employs is very effective.
But like any work of art, the film has its flaws. The film goes on a little too long. There are two or three places towards the end where it could have come to a close. Nothing within the scenes themselves is lagging, or unnecessary. But a couple of scenes toward the end could have been taken out to tighten up the overall film. Also, I am no expert on the technicalities of filmmaking, but I think the film's lighting could have been better. The actors did not look their usual best, and the scenes lacked the luminous glow that I love of other films. This problem could be budgetary, or the result of a lack of communication between the creative team. But in any case, an investment in better lighting could have gone a long way in making the film even better.
But in spite of these small shortcomings, The Meyerowitz Stories was a really enjoyable film. It had great acting, a touching script, and was packed with humor and quirky details that made you squeal with laughter. It is rare for a film to move you and make you laugh, but Noah Baumbach does both artfully. I am excited to see the next film to come from this original, and skillful movie director.
© 2017 Mark Nimar