Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Noah Baumbach's Meyerowitz Stories-- All In the Family

Filmmaker Noah Baumbach is something of a poet of family dysfunction. I was impressed by his The Squid and the Whale (2005), though I came away vastly relieved that I had never had to survive the challenges of a split-up family. I feel the same way about Baumbach’s newest release, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which was greeted enthusiastically at Cannes last spring. This film too has a lot to say about the impact of failed marriages on the children of these unions, but its tone is gentler, with occasional glimmers of nostalgia.

Don’t expect from Baumbach a tightly-plotted movie. He’s not going to become a Hollywood-style director anytime soon. As his title hints, the film is structured like a collection of linked short stories. He meanders from one character to another, one situation to another, until we have a full multi-generational picture of the Meyerowitz clan, people who were born to drive one another crazy.

Everything starts with Harold, a bearded and paunchy New York sculptor. He’s played with cantankerous panache by 80-year-old Dustin Hoffman, who’s now worlds away from his role as just-turned-21 Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Harold Meyerowitz, modeled after Baumbach’s own grandfather, is a semi-success in his chosen field: the Whitney Museum once purchased one of his pieces, though it now doesn’t quite know where to find it. But he’ll never get over the fact that he lacks the recognition accorded some of his peers. His 33 years as an inspirational art teacher at Bard College seem to mean nothing to him. And he dismisses his three grown children (from two of his four marriages) with a blend of condescension and disdain. This is not a man that most people would find lovable, though his perennially soused current wife (an hilarious Emma Thompson) and his major art-world rival (Judd Hirsch) are firmly in his corner. So are the grown sons who can’t live with him, can’t live without him.

Ben Stiller does well as the neurotic younger son who has besmirched the family name by lacking artistic talent, but now (as a highly successful financial planner) could buy and sell all the other characters. In the awkward position of being his father’s clear favorite, he struggles to make everyone happy while simultaneously wrestling with his crumbling marriage back in L.A. But most of the film’s critical attention has gone to Adam Sandler, for his intricate portrayal of the angry older son. He’s been embittered by his father’s neglect of him from childhood onward, and yet he’s also a good and loving dad to his own daughter, who’s on the brink of her college years. (She aspires to be a filmmaker, and her would-be-bold student films are among the film’s most hilarious moments, especially given that everyone in this artsy family feels obliged to show them high respect.)

I’m not familiar with the TV and stage work of Elizabeth Marvel, who plays the third--and most neglected–-Meyerowitz sibling. As the mousy Jean, she’s poignantly left out of the loop no matter what’s happening. Other small but vital roles are played by Adam Driver (as a petulant celebrity client of Ben Stiller’s character) and Candice Bergen (as an ex-wife with a conscience). The Meyerowitz Stories is hardly straight-ahead filmmaking, but it contains great pockets of delight. Like that awkward MOMA art opening attended by Hoffman and Sandler in matching tuxedoes, and especially the climactic moment when the Meyerowitz half-brothers finally, clumsily, act out their mutual disgust before acknowledging that, after all is said and done, they need each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment