Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Emma Thompson
Runtime: 121 Minutes
Noah Baumbach’s earlier career with the likes of The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding saw him playing with the dysfunctional family dynamics and the existential unease of middle-class white men. Something that has shifted since his creative and personal partnership with Greta Gerwig began several years ago, allowing a sweetness to seep into the isolated lives of his characters.
The Meyerowitz Stories is a return to his more serious-minded familial conflict dramas of sibling rivalries and distant father figures, but it retains that sweetness and applies it in a way that softens the blow of some of its more severe plot details and emotional developments.
The resentment born between siblings, the half-brothers Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Danny (Adam Sandler) and sister Jene (Elizabeth Marvel), stems from the attention of their tortured and doddering fool of a father, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman). Harold is a self-absorbed artist who feels forever robbed of the fame and respect he feels he is owed by society and the art world culture he centres himself in, forever aggrieved by the failed ambitions of his children who either took different paths or never developed their skills further.
Hoffman is great in the role, the way he shuffles through the frame and awkwardly runs (a recurring joke that all the family members run as oddly as he does) gives him a humble humanity that his personality is constantly shafting as he speaks loud over everyone around him in a failing game of verbal tennis.
The standout performances lie with the Meyerowitz children. Stiller is delivering some of his most affecting emotional work as the successful business owner who never felt his father’s compassion, and Sandler once again proves that when given the right material and direction his shaggy dog persona and angry outbursts can be perfectly sculpted around the character in his pest dramatic performance since Punch-Drunk Love. But Marvel silently undersells her role as the most interesting and repressed of the three, and in a devastatingly relevant monologue reveals that she is just as maligned, if not more so, as her brothers.
Baumbach’s direction is still as controlled and precise as he’s ever been, but he sheds some of the eccentricities of his more recent work in favour of calmer staging environments and a more melancholy tone. Segmented as experiences through the eyes of the family members, it moves like the chapters of a well-structured novel in presentation while still unrestrained by time as a factor of the narrative. He cuts sharply from scenes that become too volatile – or to simply garner a great reactionary laugh – feel particularly well-timed and with intent.
The Meyerowitz Stories feels the warmth of cinematic grain and the comfortable look of his past features, feeling like something Sydney Pollack or Woody Allan might have produced in the 1970s, but with less cynicism and fewer one-liners. It’s a stable film of a contemporary family that plays its emotions rather well with a good balance of dry comedy and drama, although a greater focus on the maligned daughter’s of the story might have been appreciated.