Film Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Terrific film about a dysfunctional artistic family that is at once funny, sad and totally credible. Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller give award-caliber performances.
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The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—great title—is set among the cultural elite who inhabit book-lined West Village apartments (or Brooklyn Heights brownstones), vacation in Martha’s Vineyard and spend weekends in rustic Berkshire cottages. It’s Woody Allen’s universe, only rendered authentically. Writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Frances Ha) never winks at the audience or evokes that snarky us-vs.-them sensibility. Given the milieu, that’s an achievement in itself and it only gets better from there.

Baumbach’s story is a layered, closely observed slice of life about a dysfunctional three-generation family whose aging patriarch Harold Meyerowtiz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor of middling success, is grappling with issues of legacy and mortality. His fourth wife, a self-centered boozer half his age (Emma Thompson), is badgering him to sell their apartment and all his sculptures (displayed, but mostly boxed and stored) that the house contains. He suspects the buyers will toss the art, though he tries not to acknowledge that. After all, years earlier the Whitney thought well enough of him to acquire one of his pieces.

Cantankerous and self-pitying, Meyerowitz bemoans the politics and fashion trends that shape success in the art world, though it’s never clear if those elements or limited talent account for his virtual invisibility in the current scene. His three adult children are hopeful they can land one or two of his pieces in a group art show at Bard College, a bastion of artsy-fartsy where he taught for many decades and was viewed as a charismatic professor by his students.

Harold’s granddaughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) is on her way to Bard (natch) to study filmmaking, with her hovering father Danny (Adam Sandler) accompanying her. Harold’s oldest child (from his second marriage) and least favorite, Danny is a failed songwriter and has never held any job for any length of time, if at all.

A child-man awash in suppressed rage, Danny arrives at his father’s house with Eliza in tow, determined to spend some time with Dad only to discover that his father is unloading his childhood home without having consulted him. Danny wants the house to remain in the family although he barely spent any time in it. He was raised by his mother elsewhere.

His sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who has been treated as a nonentity throughout her life, is on hand as well and wholly detached from her family. Still, when she and Danny sit at the piano and sing a song they jointly wrote—a Randy Newman ditty that’s hokey beyond belief—it’s oddly moving, conjuring the closeness that once existed between them.

And then there’s Matthew (Ben Stiller), the third and favored sibling (actually half-sibling, born to Harold’s third wife), a frenetically driven financial planner who has flown in from his home in California in order to facilitate ASAP the sale of the house and disposal of his father’s art work. He grew up in the old homestead but can’t wait to be free of it. The narrative takes a turn when Harold falls, injures his head and slips into a coma.

Structured like a series of five interconnected short stories bookended with chapter titles and blackouts—similar to Hannah and Her Sisters—at its core Meyerowitz is an exploration of family dynamics—most pointedly between fathers and sons—towards the end of dad’s life…The Squid and the Whale decades down the pike.

Demanding, indeed authoritarian fathers of the “progressive” ilk—who are by turns over-involved with and/or indifferent to their children—are still relatively new types onscreen, though not unknown (think Captain Fantastic, The Family Fang and to a lesser extent Toni Erdmann). But what makes the narcissistic Harold so original is his own self-doubt; his vacillating definitions of worth and success; his struggles with issues of status and money. He’s not supposed to care, but he does. And it’s precisely those inner conflicts that inform his tumultuous relationships with his two sons who are still desperate to please him and hate him for it (shades of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums).

Harold assesses his children’s value on the basis of their artistic impulses and their initiative in following through on them, whether or not they have any desire to do so or the remotest possibility of making a go of it. We don’t know what Danny feels about his putative songwriting career, but we do know that he’s a source of shame to Harold, who is totally unaware of (and probably bored by) how much pain he’s caused Danny—the latter living with it in the same way he tolerates his chronic leg pain, just limping along (literally and figuratively). Nice touch.

Despite Matthew’s high-powered moneymaking career, Harold respects him even as he resents him—perhaps paradoxically because he’s scored in the real world, which is more than can be said for Harold. But Matthew only experiences the criticism and has grown fiercely competitive to excel as an act of self-affirmation and rebellion. When he comes to New York, he stays with his mother (Candice Bergen) instead of Harold.

Still, both sons feel sorry for Harold as he’s become an outlier and a bit delusional. In a striking scene, at once comic and sad, Harold attends his colleague-rival’s retrospective at MoMA, arriving at the L.J Shapiro (Judd Hirsch) exhibit in black tie and tux while everyone else is dressed casually—and worse, he is not even on the guest list for the private dinner and reception. He’s eaten up with jealousy and he’s been shunted aside. He charges out of the museum. It’s an extraordinary old man’s run, his feet scraping the street as he shambles along with a spurt of energy and unexpected speed. Danny is chasing after him, his limp more pronounced with each running step.

The father-child bond (or lack thereof) is carried into the next generation as well. Not surprisingly, both brothers are separated from their wives. Matthew’s relationship with his toddler son takes place almost exclusively through cellphone conversations and Skype, whereas Danny lives smack in the center of his college-age daughter’s life, infantilizing her every step of the way.

His excessive praise of her sophomoric films that are at best pretentious soft-core porn is amusing and horrifying. It’s the flip side of his experience with Harold. But true to the family tradition, Danny sets a premium on artistic talent. One can’t help wondering if Eliza has been covertly pressured into her “chosen” career, where the odds of success are virtually nonexistent. Not to put too fine a point on it, but like everyone else in the family she’s the victim of abuse gussied up as enlightened thought. She’s in training for a lifetime of economic dependence.

The performances are exquisite. A fully bearded Hoffman, no stranger to playing modern dads, albeit reflecting far-flung aesthetics—from Kramer vs. Kramer to the Focker flicks—is appealing, credible and pathetic. As for Sandler, not since Punch Drunk Love has he demonstrated such serious acting chops, his intense interactions with Harold and Matthew fully realized. Same for Stiller, who is in many ways the star of this film as the father-son theme becomes very real—it’s hard not to think of Ben talking about his father Jerry—when Matthew breaks down and confesses his love for his father. It’s a powerful scene.

The minor roles are complex and well-acted too—from Judd Hirsch’s pompous, self-satisfied artist who says he’s not sure what success means (he’s lying) to Candice Bergen’s Julia, who forges a three-dimensional character in one brief scene as she looks back with regret, apologizing to Harold for treating her two stepchildren like, well, stepchildren. They deserved a more nurturing stepmom and she’s been haunted about it for many years, she says. It’s a lovely and touching fragment.

Sociologically, the film is so on-point. Consider Harold’s wives. They’re right out of the Jewish man’s stereotypical fantasy of WASP womanhood and say far more about his feelings—acknowledged and unacknowledged—of what it means to be a secular, educated, anti-tribal Jew than anything else. From the women’s point of view he’s probably as exotically/erotically “other”—and thus desirable-- to them as they are to him. But in the end, their inter-ethnic marriages have become a fashion statement. There’s no evidence that anybody loves anybody.

The most complicated secondary character is Elizabeth Marvel’s Jean, a sexually ambiguous, childless woman, her impassive expression and monotone vocal drone hinting at sterility on so many fronts. Yet she’s not unconscious. On her way to visit Harold in the hospital, she spies an old friend of his, now senile and decrepit, who exposed himself to her when she was a teenager at their father’s Martha’s Vineyard home. She’s visibly shaken and recounts the distasteful event to her brothers, though it soon becomes obvious that it has summoned the far more painful recollection of that vacation where, short of babysitting her half-brother and his friends, she was nonexistent to her father.

Having heard nothing of what she’s said, the brothers smash up the exhibitionist’s car, feeling justified in administering retribution. In fact, their act of violence has become an excuse for bonding and they feel closure on Jean’s behalf. But she is disgusted by their actions. Destroying the car gives her no sense of resolution. She could shatter dozens of cars and she’d still be screwed up, she points out. There are so many subtle crosscurrents of miscommunication here.  

Still, it’s the final scene set in the Whitney Museum archives, lined with rows of floor-to ceiling-crates housing its permanent collection, that says it all. Wandering through the stacks that resemble caskets piled on top of each other, Eliza has located the Meyerowitz box. Indeed, the way she gently rubs her hand across his name, she could just as easily be visiting his headstone. Still, she seems so happy. Her grandfather’s life has had meaning. It’s a grotesque moment. But on second thought, who’s to say she’s wrong? Hey, maybe his piece will be on display at some point. Not likely.

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