The Meyerowitz Stories (2017)
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Grace van Patten, Adam Driver, Judd Hirsch
The latest in a spate of independent films to be released exclusively under the Netflix banner, The Meyorowitz Stories (New and Selected) brings together an extraordinary cast for a typically old-school New York styled independent that is filled to the brim with intelligent dialogue, features at least one career-defining performance, and is quietly humorous. Noah Baumbach (Greenberg – 2010; Frances Ha – 2012) is back for another release we’re sure to remember for the same understated and intelligent work we’ve become accustomed to, so you’ll probably want to add this particular movie to your Netflix queue.
The Meyorowitz Stories centres upon the Meyerowitz family, headed by tough-to-please patriarch Harold (Hoffman), and is presented in chapters displayed as title cards that introduce new perspectives on the relationship between the patriarch and his children, or particularly profound developments in their adult relationships with one another. Harold is a retired scultpor and college professor whose relationship with his children is strained to the point of borderline absence, and it is in this relationship that the movie focuses much of its efforts, questioning the reasons for and against particular character traits that clearly define and separate the siblings from one another; differences that ultimately bring them together as a collection of misfits in the midst of their middle ages. It is through their eyes that the universe of the film is seen, and as such Harold is presented as a father figure too lost in the realities of his own life to have ever truly given up his time for his children, yet screenwriter-director Baumbach doesn’t offer the safe story arc of redemptive father in this movie, instead focusing upon the ways in which so many of us leave our better selves for a never-reached “later”; a redemptive moment that so often never comes. Instead, Baumbach presents the children coming to terms with the actuality of the relationship and freeing themselves from the shackles it had bound them with, hitting a crescendo via the use of a well written and even better performed series of speeches that offer the characters a voice to their self-revelation regarding their relationships to their father; all the while presented to an absence of soundtrack that builds the reality of said sequences and the power of the screenplay’s words. It is in this presentation of life, through these well written moments of self-reflective revelation and the methods through which they’re delivered, that The Meyerowitz Stories plants itself in the sort of relatable reality that has come to define and humanise so much of Baumbach’s work and has made him one of the top independent directors to work for on the US’s East Coast.
Stars Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, upon whom much of the movie’s emotional weight is rested, have described their experience of working under Baumbach as being some of the best in their respective careers, and it truly shows in their work. Stiller returns to the sort of form he found under Baumbach in Greenberg (2010), with a particular moment in which his character sheds his up-tight and controlled personality for a more emotional and passionate self being one of the better moments in the film as a whole, bringing an entirely new degree of empathy to an otherwise closed off character and (at times) hard to understand relationship with his father. Meanwhile, Adam Sandler’s performance as Stiller’s slightly older brother is undoubtedly some of the best dramatic work of the actor’s career, with only Punch-Drunk Love (2002) even coming close to the levels of performance he hits in this film. The actor, whose latter career has perhaps been more famous for low-brow humour than credible artistic merit, offered a presentation of reserved anger and almost dopey innocence that would have seemed, on paper, to be so easy to overplay yet comes across as entirely natural. The character he plays, Danny, is a father whose daughter (van Patten) creates over-the-top art-house sex exploration films, has a short fuse, and has a limp courtesy of a bad hip, yet Sandler grounds him in a seamless manner, presenting a wholesomeness that is rarely seen from the actor.
Elsewhere, Elizabeth Marvel’s performance as the two brothers’ sister Jean is both fantastically written and performed given limited screen time, with her almost dead-pan presentation being the source of some of the more humourous punch lines in the film and her overall presence growing to a point of likeability by the film’s end. She, and the rest of the on-screen family, are supported by the typically eccentric Emma Thompson who plays the 3rd wife of Hoffman’s Harold. Her performance was perhaps the least memorable of the movie’s leads but featured a level of charm and natural presentation that the character seemed to lack on paper and Hoffman’s Harold seemed to lack altogether, a part of the movie’s overall delivery that helped to build a multi-dimensional and interesting family.
In contrast, Baumbach’s decision to cast famous faces across the film in cameos was quite distracting. Adam Driver turned up as a rock star wanting a pool in his apartment during a scene with Stiller, which seemed included as much to get a star name into the film as it was to gift Stiller’s character with any sort of backstory, while Sigourney Weaver played herself at an opening for an art show, introducing herself to Hoffman’s Harold in a scene that offered little more to the plot than a slight point of reference in future conversations and ultimately removed the reality of the scene due to the fact it was Dustin Hoffman – one of Hollywood’s all-time great stars – that she was being “a celebrity” to. Hoffman was, at times, a distraction in himself, with many of The Meyerowitz Stories’ monologue scenes seeming to detach the actor from the power (and quality) of his visual work and instead rely upon what was lacklustre line delivery that seemed not too far removed from reading them from a teleprompter similar to a news host or television presenter.
Visually, the film offered little by the way of noticeably outstanding technique, but was a solid presentation that had a few creative and artistic implementations that flew under the radar. While not typically the sort of film you’d expect to see present itself as an art-house picture, The Meyerowitz Stories was rich in terms of its editing, jump cutting to chapter changes in a disjointed manner which was presented as if representative of not only the difference in linear stories but also the core of the family as a whole. The film was, however, entirely purposed by the screenplay Baumbach had written, and the director cleverly used it to floor the visuals of the film and let his words do the talking. In working with his own script, the director was able to step back from any egotistical decisions that would force the implementation of noticeably different creative choices with the camera, reserving his only noticeable technique for the one point in the film that seemed most removed from the reality of the film’s universe: a goodbye from Sandler’s Danny to his father. It was in implementing this creative choice that the real conclusion of the film was delivered; a powerful full stop at the end of the story.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) will not be everyone’s cup of tea. The film was slow moving and presented as quite ordinary – it featured little by the way of blood, mystery or the supernatural – and its intelligent dialogue, and the ways in which the actor’s delivered it over one another, could be considered pretentious. It was a presentation of middle-class America fighting with words and finding it tough to stick to their stereotypes as the film embraced other art forms in a move that was consciously looking to legitimise the picture’s intelligence. Even so, this Noah Baumbach presentation features some of the best work of the screenwriter-director’s career and a quite moving central story arc, creating particular empathy for the characters of Sandler and Stiller, with the former doing some of his all-time best work. This picture will be remembered for the quality in the nuances of Baumbach’s script and the feeling of traditional film-making that the film delivered, and while it won’t be headlining any of this upcoming season’s awards shows, The Meyerowitz Stories is one heck of an outing for Netflix that is noteworthy for more good reasons than bad.