The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Comedies involving dysfunctional families are easy to make: throw in a bunch of superficially quirky personalities in a carbonated situation, shake it vigorously, and watch the reaction occur. But to make a good comedy that just so happens to focus on a dysfunctional family requires a bit more effort, some finesse, because the viewers are asked to attempt to understand how each mind is working, why certain personalities clash, and what present conflicts stem from which histories, real or imagined. Clearly, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” written and directed by Noah Baumbach, belongs to the latter because it concerned about mental machinations and acrobatics behind behavior.
The characters we are asked to observe have been touched by the art world one way or another. Harold (Dustin Hoffman), the patriarch, has two sons (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller) and a daughter (Elizabeth Marvel), none of whom have forged a career in the arts as he had once wished or expected. Harold the sculptor and former Bard College professor is an interesting specimen because although he does not mince words not once does he say outright that he is disappointed with his children.
Instead, the material and Hoffman focus on showing, occasionally underlining, what seeps through the cracks. We can catch the father’s regrets in the way he treats his children, one of them being the clear favorite but a disappointment nonetheless. Notice numerous instances in which he and his offsprings, as a group or one-on-one, are sitting on the same table but consistently talking through one another. Some may consider this technique as classic comedy trope but peer closer and realize that it is a symptom of passive aggression.
The script functions on this level of intelligence and realism throughout the entire picture. It is refreshing to hear the way people actually speak or behave with one another as we do in real life rather than yet another tired and true ideations gracing the screen. Although the dysfunctional family sub-genre is rife with clichés, Baumbach tweaks the formula just enough to keep the material interesting, whether it be in terms of characterization or how a scene is delivered. An example of the latter involves fading to black right in the middle of interactions, sometimes mid-conversation, when the punchline has been delivered.
Although the characters are well-drawn in general, I was less impressed by Sandler and Stiller’s performances, particularly when they revert to their go-to histrionics to wring laughter out of the audience. I enjoyed it best when they simply respond as real people when thrusted in certain situations. Yelling like madmen, destroying cars, and getting into a scuffle on a lawn, for instance, take us out of the situation. Right then we see Sandler and Stiller the comedians rather than Danny and Matthew the long-suffering half-brothers, the former currently unemployed and the latter a successful Los Angeles-based financial advisor.
Baumbach does not offer anything new in this project, but it is entertaining and honest about family dynamics and the shifts that inevitably occur when tragedy befalls a clan. Observant viewers will be rewarded because it is a picture that details information through subtle usage of words and body language.