The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Life with their father

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“The Meyerowtiz Stories (New and Selected)” is as amusing as its whimsical title suggests. As dryly depicting the rocky relationship dynamics among the members of one dysfunctional family, the movie entertains us with small humorous moments generated among them, and we gladly go along with that even though most of them are not very likable to say the least. Sure, they are more or less than broad archetypes, but they are engaging characters to watch nonetheless, and we come to understand their human flaws and pains even while we get laughs from how absurd and pathetic they are.

The movie is about Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) and his three adult children who were respectively born from his three previous marriages: Danny (Adam Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), and Matthew (Ben Stiller). When Danny, who was recently divorced from his wife and has been recently unemployed, comes to stay at his father’s house for a while along with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), he initially seems to be welcomed by his father and his father’s new wife Maureen (Emma Thompson, who is deliberately goofy in her caricature role), but the gap between him and his father is evident when they later have a dinner with Maureen, Eliza, and Jean. As a guy who was one of prominent sculptors working in New York City, Harold expected a lot from Danny, but Danny came to disappoint him instead, and Harold frequently reminds Danny of that during their strained conversation.

Nevertheless, Harold needs his loser son mainly for boosting his remaining artistic ego a bit, and Danny is always ready for that because that is what he has done for many years since he was young. Perfectly fitting to his man-child character, Adam Sandler gets a chance to do some real acting here in contrast to his many recent forgettable movies, and the result is his best performance since “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) and “Funny People” (2009). Deftly conveying to us his character’s arrested emotional state, Sandler is often surprisingly sensitive, and that aspect is exemplified well by his small musical scene with Grace Van Patten, who holds her own place well among her more prominent co-performers.

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Danny and Jean try to give their father a chance to exhibit his old artworks in public, but Harold is too proud to grab the chance, and he continues to be petty and self-absorbed as usual. When he and Danny come to his old friend’s special exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, he cannot help but feel envy as seeing his friend’s enduring success, and we accordingly get another funny moment in the film as he tries to hide his envy behind a series of half-baked critical comments. Dustin Hoffman, who is still one of the greatest actors in our time, has a wry fun with his incorrigibly egoistic character, and his performance is constantly amusing to watch that even though we often cringe at how callously his character treats others around him – and how selfishly he holds them around himself.

After the first part revolving around the relationship between Danny and Harold, the second part of the movie shifts the focus toward the relationship between Harold and Matthew, who has lived in LA while working as a successful financial manager. In contrast to Danny, Matthew prefers to stay away from his father as much as he can, but his meeting with Harold in New York City reminds him again that he is not totally free from his unhappy family past yet. After all, he has worked hard for proving himself to his father, hasn’t he?

As recently shown from “Brad’s Status” (2017), Ben Stiller, who previously collaborated with director/writer Noah Baumbach in “Greenberg” (2010) and “While We’re Young” (2014), is always good at playing neurotic characters insecure about themselves, and I enjoyed how Matthew is gradually agitated by his father’s constant annoyance. Eventually, there comes a point when Matthew decides that enough is enough, and we are not so surprised while observing that he has been emotionally damaged as much as his half-brother.

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Around its third part, the movie becomes more serious than before due to one certain incident, but the movie does not lose its sense of humor at all, and it finally gives some space to Jean, who, not so surprisingly, turns out to have her own emotional issues. Although she is rather under-utilized compared to Stiller or Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel gives a fine performance balanced well between pathos and humor, and she is particularly good when Jean reveals her old hurtful secret to her half-brothers.

Around his main cast members, Baumbach places several notable performers, and they are also solid in their respective small supporting roles. While Judd Hirsch plays Harold’s old friend, Rebecca Miller appears as the daughter of Hirsch’s character, and Adam Driver, who previously played a supporting character in “While We’re Young”, makes a brief cameo appearance as one of Matthew’s clients. As one of Harold’s ex-wives, Candice Bergen brings considerable warmth to her single scene, and we can really sense her character’s regret when she confides to Harold and Matthew that she was not a very good mother to her stepchildren.

While it stumbles a little during its epilogue part, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”, which is currently available on Netflix, is another interesting work from Baumbach, who drew my attention for the first time via his Oscar-nominated film “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). The movie is surely a typical dysfunctional NYC middle-class family drama which reminds us of many other similar films including Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), but it distinguishes itself through sharp humor and smart storytelling, and I got enough laughs as appreciating its good performances. They are indeed one unhappy family, but they are fun to watch, aren’t they?

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