The fact that the plural version of the word story is utilized in the title of the new Noah Baumbach movie “The Meyerowitz Stories” should indicate to the average viewer that this one film contains multiple different tales it plans to tell. All of the assorted plotlines follow the Meyerowitz family, a group of assorted artists at differing stages of life. The member of this family most prominent in the film itself is Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler), a piano player whose going through a divorce and also dealing with his 18-year-old daughter leaving home for college. Meanwhile, his half-brother, wealthy accountant Matthew Meyerowitz (Ben Stiller), is coming up from Los Angeles to sell their dad’s home.
Their dad happens to be sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), an elderly man whose mightily self-absorbed to a dangerous degree. There’s also Harold’s recovering alcoholic wife Maureen (Emma Thompson), as well as Danny and Matthew’s reserved sister Jean Meyerowitz (Elizabeth Marvel) factoring into the various Meyerowitz Stories. As you can imagine, all of these distinctive personalities clashing up against each other for the first time in eons is going to result in some chaos, at best. That’s just naturally what’s gonna happen when you get a family like the Meyerowitz together though…
Noah Baumbach returns to the groundwork of handily his best movie, “The Squid And The Whale,” with “The Meyerowitz Stories” in that his newest motion picture, like his 2005 directorial effort, is all about chronicling the strife of an artsy-fartsy family. That’s a broad enough framework to ensure that “The Meyerowitz Stories” has plenty of room to do, like David S. Pumpkins, its own thing and luckily, that means we get the strongest Noah Baumbach movie in over a decade. Both Baumbach’s directing and writing feel oh so comfortable with telling this story and that results in the production as a whole having this sense of easygoing confidence to it that’s hard to deny.
Where The Meyerowitz Stories truly excels as a feature film is in the various performances its cast members give, and boy is it good that that element came through given how heavily reliant on the actors the overall movie is. Adam Sandler eschews his brash cool guy comedic persona in favor of a more naturalistic character that Sandler sells with remarkable conviction. “Punch-Drunk Love” was no fluke or a demonstration of talent lost to time folks, Sandler really is a terrific dramatic actor and to boot, he handles his characters assorted subdued comedic moments with a similar level of success. Sandler’s not reviving the more loud-mouthed and cocksure tendencies since in the vast majority of his comedies when it comes time to deliver moments of levity, instead, he keeps in tight rhythm with the down-to-Earth aesthetic of the rest of the movie and manages to create some notable laughs out of working in comedic confines he hasn’t work in in eons.
Fellow funnyman Ben Stiller also finds success in his supporting turns as Matthew, which finds Noah Baumbach regular Stiller transporting his neurotic-driven comedic persona into a sometimes also comedic but other times more dramatic individual. It’s a mighty fine turn from Stiller, though it must be said the ace in the hole of the entire cast has to be Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz. Hoffman is an absolute gem in this part, particularly in the way he’s able to realistically portray a man whose default mode of engaging with others is through a self-absorbed lens, but it comes so naturally to him now that it’s not even meant as malicious, it’s just something he does like breathing or walking. The authenticity of this performance is particularly noticeable in the best scene of the entire motion picture, wherein Hoffman at an eatery hysterically stages his own protest against an intrusive customer sitting next to him.
Unfortunately, Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel don’t get as well-polished of characters to play, and it’s a true blue shame that a film entirely centered on the Meyerowitz family leaves two crucial members of said family off on the sidelines for too much of its story. At least both of them, particularly Thompson, get some amusing and memorable lines that both actors deliver with finesse. They’re not the only ones in this motion picture to have some truly witty things to say since Baumbach’s screenplay contains sharply written dialogue throughout that maintains a good balance between being naturalistic while also being quite humorous.
Less successful is a third act that begins to incorporate storytelling details that feel too much like they’re trying to create tidy character arcs and incorporate conflict deriving from familial strife (namely between Danny and Matthew) whereas the rest of the film was deriving so much entertainment from just letting the characters flow organically, with no concrete character arcs to dictate their path, and just having the idiosyncratic individual members of the Meyerowitz clan bounce off each other without resorting to conflict that’s not bad just less entertaining than what came before it. Luckily, there’s still plenty of charm and comedy to be found in the home stretch of the story and it should be noted that separate diversions from the realistic aesthetic of The Meyerowitz Stories do work far more successfully.
Some of these diversions include hysterical student films that Danny’s daughter makes, which are so far removed from the typical directorial style of Noah Baumbach that they seem to have come from another planet, while recurring abrupt cuts lend The Meyerowitz Stories some of its biggest laughs, major props to editor Jennifer Lame on that facet of the production, which is overall quite the entertaining motion picture. It may stumble trying to create more traditional storytelling in its final act, but even that section of the movie, if nothing else, still results in the humorously entertaining sight of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller wrestling in the grass. Plus, Dustin Hoffman’s performance alone is worth the price of admission, or the price of your Netflix subscription.
Douglas Laman is a film critic,who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com