Cast: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten
Director: Noah Baumbach
Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
With The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), writer-director Noah Baumbach has made a quintessential Noah Baumbach movie; meaning, there's middle-aged men with daddy issues structured like a J.D. Salinger novel and shades of Wood Allen. Truthfully, Baumbach has developed his own filmic language over the years, but there's still a lingering sense of repetition here. The disappointments of adulthood, the resentments of childhood, and ineffectual father/son dynamics are the main thematic issues at play, with Baumbach repeating tropes he's covered at length more effectively in the past, most notably in 2004's The Squid and The Whale. Since the characters here never seem to take a moment of silence, it feels like the Meyerowitz clan could bicker, moan, and digress themselves into a 13-episode Netflix Original TV series. Instead, we only get two hours of Manhattan elite dysfunction.
There are worse things in the world than another Baumbach trifle; such as, say, another Woody Allen trifle, but The Meyerowitz Stories is still little more than a lightly comedic/dramatic look at unremarkable people dealing with an unremarkable patriarch. The selected stories are divided into four chapters, which are told chronologically with small shifts in time, and mostly involve the same cast of characters. There's Danny (Adam Sandler), the failed musician son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), whose daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten) is heading off to college. Meanwhile, Danny's younger half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller) is a businessman who mostly ignores the family, while older Meyerowitz daughter, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) hangs around chatting about her mysterious job at Xerox. Emma Thompson also shows up as Harold's fourth wife, Maureen, who spends most of the film hiding behind large glasses and drunken hippie mantras.
Baumbach's fixations with failed fathers, man-children, and intra-family conflict are fully on display here; as is his skewering of the art world, which is something he brought to the collaborations with fellow co-writer and beau Greta Gerwig. Whereas the Gerwig-centric Frances Ha and Mistress America allowed the filmmaker a younger prism to unleash satirical jabs at hipster culture, The Meyerowitz Stories is yet another film about navel-gazing Jewish artists who never seem to shut up. Movies dabbling in this territory--pretentious NY art culture via first world problems--have no business asking for sympathy or trotting out agreeable characters. However, Baumbach is now content to politely lob the ball over the plate where he used to toss high-speed curve balls. Characters are grumpy, disenchanted, and weary where they used to be sardonic, aggressive, and threatening.
In any case, aging boomer Harold prattles on about getting his art into a showcase, while Danny and Matthew take turns expressing how damaged their childhood was living with such a cantankerous blowhard. Danny is now unemployed and forced to stay with his father while his daughter makes cringe-worthy student films filled with nudity, while Matthew still harbors ill-will toward a father who never respected him. Jean, the film's most interesting character, sadly gets lost in the shuffle; only to offer up a monologue near the climax detailing childhood trauma. Marvel absolutely nails Jean's awkwardness and inability to fit in with this roving band of men, but the darker aspects of her character's history feels like an afterthought. On the other hand, Hoffman is clearly having a blast rattling off deluded rants as a man so infatuated with his own mythos that he can't recognize the emotional and psychological damage he's done to his family, while Sandler underplays his usual sad sack loser shtick as Danny. Though it's nice to see Sandler somewhat engaged onscreen, this isn't some revelatory turn for a guy known for crotch kicks and mugging facial expressions. Early rapturous praise for his performance here have been widely exaggerated.
The Meyerowitz Stories hinges on a quasi-tragic turn which allows all of these damaged characters to confront their inadequacies in the same space. These interactions; mostly testy, sometimes playful, all inevitably circle back to the looming grey beard that is Harold. Daddy never loved me. Daddy never respected my career choices. Daddy never listened. We get it, Mr. Baumbach. Families-- especially artsy middle-class families-- are dysfunctional branches springing from the patriarchal root. In this case, the root is rotten, but probably could have grown into a healthy tree with more nurturing and less babbling. Unfortunately, we get stuck with the babbling.