When it comes to movies about rich, eccentric, dysfunctional (and white, you can’t forget white) families, one director comes instantly to mind: Wes Anderson. He’s exceptional at exploring broken family dynamics in pictures like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Anderson’s sometime collaborator, Noah Baumbach, has plumbed the same depths of familial dysfunction, most notably in The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. The two have worked together in some capacity on Anderson’s Life Aquatic, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Baumbach’s Squid.
Baumbach has returned to this familiar subject matter for his new film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), but to a decidedly mixed effect. The movie feels too reminiscent of Anderson’s masterful Tenenbaums, but with none of the emotional connection to the characters, and only a hint of that movie’s wistfulness.
Stories focuses on the Meyerowitz clan, a family in flux. Patriarch Harold is a retired sculptor and art professor who is contemplating, with his current wife Maureen, selling their home in New York City, along with all of Harold’s art that is stored there. The university where Harold taught is offering to put on a retrospective of his work, and his estranged family gathers for it. His three adult children, Danny, Matthew, and daughter Jean, all have strained relationships with the man who paid more attention to his work than he ever did his kids.
These three also have challenges in their own lives. Danny is a rageaholic. He’s in the middle of a divorce, and his daughter, Eliza, to whom he’s very close, is going off to college. He feels suddenly adrift. Matthew is the most disconnected from the rest of the family. He has established a successful career as a financial advisor, 3000 miles away in California. Jean is the most eccentric of the lot, and is the closest with her father, at least geographically.
The main source of my resistance to The Meyerowitz Stories is one of emotional connection. This family is a collection of zany oddballs doing zany, oddball things, and I laughed along with most of their antics. But beyond a few fleeting moments, I never cared enough about any of them to fully engage on an emotional level.
Part of that disconnect comes from the structure of the story. It’s too episodic to allow us a satisfying relationship with any of the characters. Whether it’s Matthew chasing down a man whom Harold thinks walked out of a restaurant with his coat, or Danny screaming at another driver who honks at him for taking too long to parallel park, the movie rarely sinks into any one event before we’re on to the next.
There is also a truly bizarre moment late in the film that uses a past sexual assault for laughs and a bonding moment for Danny and Matthew. Weeks before Harold’s retrospective, he is put into a medically induced coma when doctors discover he has a brain tumor. An old friend comes to the hospital to visit, and when the three Meyerowitz kids see him in the parking lot, Jean runs in the other direction without explanation.
Danny and Matthew chase her down, and ask her what’s wrong. She describes how, as a child, the old family friend saw her one day in a bathing suit, and how he performed a lewd act on himself as she stood there, frozen with fear. With a sense of long delayed justice being served, Danny and Matthew decide to vandalize the old man’s car. When Jean finds out what they’ve done, she scolds them. He’s a sick old man now, and what they did doesn’t help the fact that she’s still fucked up, she tells them.
It almost works as a commentary on how men feel the need to perform as saviors in these situations, but how what they’re really doing is enjoying their own destructive tendencies. Still, the episode exists for the laughs, both as the brothers gleefully bust up the car, and as they give each other high-fives in the afterglow. The fact that a little girl’s sexual assault serves as the catalyst is a little sickening.
Adam Sandler plays easily angered Danny in what can most charitably be described as a variation on his character Barry Egan in the brilliant Punch-Drunk Love. It’s really the same performance, only director P.T. Anderson was able to tease out some very subtle nuances from Sandler in Love that Baumbach isn’t able to replicate here. Ben Stiller is enjoyable enough as Matthew, the most successful of the Meyerowitz offspring, but his comically irritable performance isn’t anything we haven’t seen him do before.
Character actress Elizabeth Marvel does the most impressive job of the three. She completely loses herself in the role of Jean. Anyone who’s familiar with Marvel’s work, especially her tough-as-nails Solicitor General-cum-presidential nominee Heather Dunbar in the TV series House of Cards will barely recognize Marvel as the mousy Jean. Dustin Hoffman gives a quirky, wry turn as Harold. He’s an artist so solipsistic, he named one of his sculptures after the wrong child, forgetting which one played on the floor of his studio as he created the piece.
I mentioned at the top of the review that Baumbach captures only a hint of the melancholy that a movie like The Royal Tenenbaums perfects. While they are few, and don’t last long, the moments that do achieve this feeling are effective. One involves the cameo performance of Candice Bergen, playing Julia, Harold’s third wife and Danny’s mother. Matthew is supposed to have dinner with Julia at her house, but the meeting is cut short when Harold tags along, making things awkward. Bergen delivers a speech about the painful regrets she still has concerning how she treated Matthew and Jean when they were kids. She was just a kid herself at the time, she says, and she had no idea how to raise children who weren’t her own. It’s a quiet, moving scene that allows Bergen to steal the movie for five minutes.
Another touching scene comes when Matthew talks to his father just after he comes out of the coma. Harold, groggy and confused, asks if he’s missed his art retrospective. Matthews tells him no, but the doctors aren’t sure if he’ll be well enough in time to make it. Harold asks in broken English – a temporary side effect of the tumor – if Matthew will go in his place. Matthew says yes. Stiller and Hoffman craft a moment that is very tender.
In the end, the laughs aren’t funny enough to make The Meyerowitz Stories work as a comedy, and the effective dramatic bits are too sparse. The movie is also in the unfortunate position of working in material that’s been covered before, and not doing it nearly as well.
Why it got 3 stars:
- Emotional connection is a big thing for me when it comes to my relationship with movies. I was never able to get over that hump with The Meyerowitz Stories.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Emma Thompson, while she doesn't get to do much but be drunk in her role as Harold's wife, Maureen, is hilarious doing it.
- I mentioned the families in these kinds of movies being rich, but The Meyerowitz Stories falls into a weird in-between zone in this regard. We're supposed to believe no one (except Matthew) has any money. Harold remained an undiscovered artist who taught to supplement his income. Danny's wife was a woman of means, so he only needs to worry about working because she's leaving him. Neither man seems overly anxious about money, though. This is especially glaring when Harold goes into the hospital with a condition that would easily bankrupt normal people.
- Judd Hirsch pops up in a few scenes as L.J. Shapiro, a contemporary of Harold's who found the fame and attention in the art world that Harold never received.
- Sigourney Weaver also appears for one scene as herself. Harold meets her, and revels in recounting this event to the rest of his family. It's an odd little moment, to be sure.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..." So begins one of the most famous cinematic soliloquies ever committed to celluloid. After 35 years, a new director is imagining the world of Blade Runner. Denis Villeneuve is bringing us the epic, 2 hour, 45 minute long Blade Runner 2049, starring Ryan Gosling. I'll be taking a look, with hopes appropriately high. Blade Runner is one of my top five movies of all time, after all.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
There is a certain stereotype about art-house/indie movie fans being totally OK with talking right out loud during screenings, usually to make what they consider insightful comments about the movie. That was in full effect during my screening of The Meyerowitz Stories. So many people were talking during the movie. It didn't help that much of the audience (and talkers) were senior citizens, another subset of humans I've found to be particularly oblivious to proper movie theater etiquette.