The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Review: Noah Baumbach Richly Explores the Legacy of Art and Family

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With The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Noah Baumbach continues to explore the relationship between art and life, this time from the perspective of a one-hit-wonder’s kids. The family’s patriarch, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), is an artist living with his fourth wife (or third, he had the first one annulled, as he corrects his son) in New York who walks and talks like he made it big when, in reality, he had one work on display at The Whitney museum and has modestly sold a few things here and there. His eldest son, Danny (Adam Sandler, wonderful and illuminating), newly divorced, comes to stay with his father and his wife (Emma Thompson) while he tries to land on his feet after being a stay-at-home father for his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), who’s off to study film at Bard.

Beyond the initial set-up, Baumbach structures the film as a series of stories, separated by cheeky title cards. After meeting Danny and seeing the strained, ignored rift between he and his father, we’re introduced to Matthew (Ben Stiller), a successful accounting in Los Angeles, and the only Meyerowitz not to have embraced their creative side. For this, he appears to be Harold’s favorite, even if his father continuously pushes that Matthew would have been a great artist while his son tries to explain the great success he’s experiencing in starting his own firm. But what interest does an old artist have in a young accountant, regardless of blood?

Through intimate gestures, some smartly repeated throughout the various sections, The Meyerowitz Stories boasts a script overflowing with affection for its characters. In fact, the script and overall style and structure might even be overcompensating for how ordinary the Meyerowitzs really are. This causes the film to occasionally feel a little self-serving, like watching home movies of a family you like, but don’t necessarily know very well. The cast, thankfully, is mostly up to the task of relaying these characters to us in open, tender ways.

Stiller may more or less be carrying the same schtick he’s been doing in his more serious work for some time, but he’s at least familiar with Baumbach’s aesthetic and themes to get across what he needs to. Sandler and Hoffman, on the other hand, are both revelatory. Neither has had a role that asked so much of them yet this decade, for Hoffman maybe the last two, and they both nail their roles with a stirring emotionality and, for Sandler, a surprising nuance. Of course, the Waterboy star has shown his dramatic chops before in works like Punch Drunk Love and Funny People, but his recent string of outright terrible Netflix originals (of which, I should mention, this is also, just not terrible) had me worried that his talents were going to waste. So The Meyerowitz Stories is a delightful reminder. It should also be noted that, despite the material, the players are all at their comedic bests here.

But of the cast, the third Meyerowitz child is disappointingly ignored for much of the first half. Jean (Elizabeth Marvel, succeeding in spades against her presidential typecast) is the quietest of the three, but when she talks, getting an abbreviated story in the midst of another one (it’s short and the title card is literally in small font enclosed by parentheses), what comes out is astounding and profound. It’s impossible not to thing that, because Marvel doesn’t have the star power of Stiller or Sandler, she was sidelines a bit from the rest of the cast. It does ultimately sort of make the film more about the Meyerowitz men than the family at large. If that’s what the film wants to be about, that’s fine, Baumbach is hardly one to be accused of sexism, no matter how light. But it’s clear in the script that Jean has something genuine to offer all her siblings, and yet her story feels disappointingly muted.

But The Meyerowitz Stories still does a wonderful job exploring the legacy of an unsuccessful artist and the effects that path has had on his three now-grown children. Every character beat is on point and recognizable, an incredible feat for any film to achieve. Baumbach’s organization could have just used a little less of a knowing wink while he took advantage of some extra opportunities his cast gave him. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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