Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)


To friends, acquaintances, and strangers, the life of sculptor and retired professor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) looks like a success, but the man himself nurtures jealousy of his peers’ wider acclaim and animosity toward an art world that has failed to appreciate him sufficiently. He sold a work to the Whitney decades ago, yet it’s indicative of his status that no one is exactly sure where it is being stored. In THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED), Harold’s self-centeredness has contributed to the strained relationship he has with the three children his four marriages have produced.

Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), the two oldest, share a mother and the sense that they were never especially important to their father. Such treatment fuels Danny to be a doting dad with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). While Matthew (Ben Stiller) is perceived, not incorrectly, to be the favored child, he carries his share of grudges regarding Harold. Despite their frustrations, all three still seek approval from him. Danny and Jean strive to secure a retrospective show of Harold’s work. Although Danny objects, Matthew tries to arrange the sale of the big, costly New York City house where Harold and his current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) reside.

The episodic nature and title of THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) suggest that the glimpses of this dysfunctional family don’t tell everything but encapsulate the fundamental truths about them and viewpoints within this unit. Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s film depicts a period of critical transition. Danny has separated from his wife and needs direction. Eliza is starting college. Matthew is at a crossroads in his marriage and career. Harold is trying to adjust to retirement. Although the chapter-like structure leaves gaps, it contains the greatest hits and misses in Meyerowitz family history. Life brings new developments, but these events all tend to circle back to be understood through the lens of old resentments. The stories each person tells himself and herself have as much to do with constructing their identities as what actually happens.

Baumbach’s comedies about families often have a strong undercurrent of anger. MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, and WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, among others, laugh at the ways people can get maligned and twisted in their most central relationships, but the humor provides a thin cover for bitterness. The characters in THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES exist in the state of a soft boil. Their emotions are adequately hot without making them hard. Baumbach crafts a warm, humane movie accepting of people in spite of their faults. The Meyerowitzes aren’t going to resolve all of their differences in the course of the film or beyond it, but Baumbach shows why blood ties and shared history can be worth saving in spite of the aggravations.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES cast is superb at conveying the commonly understood order and unspoken, or whispered, opinions in families. Baumbach excels at capturing the dynamic in which each person assumes the role they’ve adopted through the years whether or not they’ve changed outside the family. He’s also really sharp and funny in observing how parents and siblings don’t fully understand what the adult kids do in their jobs and how watching TV together can be as meaningful as anything in maintaining the peace.

Sandler has proven to be a good actor when working with directors who can modulate his tendencies. Here he’s quite affecting playing a loving father who transforms into an ignored little boy desperate for validation when around his dad. His tender scenes with Van Patten reveal Danny at his best. His goodness is visible in how he’s attentive in a way that Harold wasn’t and isn’t and also in how she protects him when she knows he’s vulnerable. The ease and honesty they have with one another contrasts powerfully with how Harold and Danny communicate. Hoffman is funny and tragic as a wrecking ball of a patriarch, one whose narrow vision fails to acknowledge that in chasing acceptance from the world at large he’s missed the love those closest to him are so eager to give. A life has many potential narratives, but it’s the one we select, rather than what is written for us, that determines if we are satisfied.

Grade: A

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