by Ken Bakely
To admit the blanks in one’s own tastes is where the honesty of criticism must begin, and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) seemingly exists to confirm my observations about this particular filmmaker. His gags are all a half-step off kilter, but it’s the kind of signature which we have come to expect from him, and it’s then when we see his chops as a storyteller. Yet those stories are better when they’re limited in both scope and reach. Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, and Elizabeth Marvel present a strong front of a leading cast, and the supporting parts are equally well-filled. Perhaps Baumbach’s approach to plotting and spacing isn’t one I can identify with – it’s what kept me from enjoying movies like Frances Ha and The Squid and the Whale as much as many others have.
We meet the Meyerowitzes in a state of estrangement and dysfunction, but we also get the feeling that it’s a groove that they’ve settled into. The patriarch, Harold (Hoffman), is an aging artist in New York City. He has three adult children from his multiple marriages over the years: Danny (Sandler), Matthew (Stiller), and Jean (Marvel). The family, as well as it can, has convocated in anticipation of a museum exhibition which will celebrate Harold’s life and work. Of course, this is an opportunity for the past to come forward, as the bandages are ripped off and the wounds underneath haven’t quite healed yet.
What ends up working is how Baumbach uses his actors, and how they work with each other, and how they make these events soar beyond those borders. Sandler and Stiller are of particular interest here, as their awkward confrontations suit each encounter with an unsettling civility, one which fails to obscure the unchecked feelings brewing underneath. They’re funny together, and when Hoffman comes into play, his cranky gambit augments the inherent humor further. The Meyerowitz Stories succeeds on delicate, uncomfortable comedy. Consider the scene in which Harold and Matthew have lunch in a restaurant. Harold is certain that the man who was sitting adjacent to them took his jacket by accident – they look identical, after all. A long chase ensues, as Matthew runs through the streets, flags down the man, they check the jackets, and as we suspected, it turns out there was no mix-up in the first place.
The Meyerowitz Stories reaffirms its director’s skill at setpieces, dialogue, and rhythm, but also re-exposes his weaknesses in developing characters and establishing structure. The film exists as a pastiche: loosely divided into segments, introduced with simple title cards telling us from whose perspective the next scenes will come from. Danny and Matthew are explored extensively, but Jean is given short shrift. Baumbach is so uninterested in the one female Meyerowitz that her title card is phrased in parentheses. In contrast with the brothers’ worldbuilding, she exists only to provide a launching pad for a new plot point.
However, I suspect this is not attributable to sexism, but a more generalized sign of the fundamental issues that mark The Meyerowitz Stories as a whole. The script is too concerned with momentary successes and symbolic releases – the climax shoehorns in a physical fight between two characters, directly followed by lengthy, emotional speeches. Baumbach recognizes the individual power in these moments within the confines of his story to that point, but they feel like stand-ins for something more rounded, which doesn’t actually exist. The thoroughness with which we become acquainted with the idea of the Meyerowitz dynamic is different from the thoroughness with which the movie itself completes its own course of action. We enjoy watching these actors get together and play off each other, but it’s clear that the movie strives to do more than just give us banter.