OnScreen Review: 'The Meyerowitz Stories'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Baggage, in some form or other, gets passed down in every parent-child relationship. Even though I’m not a parent, this seems to be a “generally observable in nature” kind of thing. It’s the dynamic of the relationship, making it practically unavoidable. I remember being a teenager in church on a Sunday morning and looking over at my dad and both of us having the sudden realization that we were holding our hymnals in the exact same manner. It can be something as benign as that or passing on character traits, tendencies, strange ticks, or even personality deficiencies. At its worst, though, these things can be debilitating or life-altering, I think this is partly how we understand in modern terms the old phrase “The sins of the father are visited upon the children.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how dysfunctional people and families can be in the wake of seeing Naoh Baumbach’s latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories. Dysfunctional does not necessarily mean destructive, though. Baumbach has seemingly made a career out of bringing dysfunctional, idiosyncratic, and quirky characters to life in his films and mining them for comedy. Think of the prickly, hard-to-like Roger Greenberg in Greenberg or the self-centered Bernard Berkman in The Squid and the Whale or how Frances declares “I’m not a real person yet” in Frances Ha. When people who praise writer-directors like Baumbach for creating characters that feel real, they mean that the characters are flawed and imperfect like real people are rather than archetypes or genre clichés.

The Meyerowitz family is a fine addition to the list of characters that have populated previous Baumbach films. The adult, middle-aged children of the family patriarch, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), have to struggle with the legacy of their father. Harold is a retired sculptor and professor who never achieved the recognition he thought he deserved and seems to hold a general, passive-aggressive grievance against the world because of it. Hoffman does a terrific job of portraying him as that particular kind of older person who is aggrieved yet also too proud at the same time, like a toned down version of George’s dad on Seinfeld, portrayed by Jerry Stiller.

Coincidentally, Ben Stiller is cast here as the youngest of Harold’s children, Matthew, and clearly is Harold’s pride and joy. Harold sings Matthew’s praises more than that of his two other children, Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel). As far as the film goes, I’m burying the lede a bit here, because Danny is arguably the most prominent character of the story, which is told in sections focusing to varying degrees on various family members, including Danny’s daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten).

With his daughter heading off to college and his marriage ending after being a “house dad” the entire time, Danny is at a bit of a crossroads in life and unsure of his next move. Having seemingly never won his father’s approval, Danny clearly has a stronger, healthier relationship with his daughter. That is something that is about to be tested with her going to college to be a film major, especially when her first student film is militantly and aggressively sexual.

Baumbach uses Danny spending more time with Harold during this time to fill us in on the family dynamics. Stiller’s Matthew, despite being the most beloved of Harold’s children, is mostly out of the picture, fed up with his father’s outlook on life, only rarely in communication with the family in New York City while he lives out in LA. Jean is quiet and reserved and perhaps purposefully a third wheel amongst the siblings, but a constant, steady third wheel. There is also the awkward family dynamic of Harold’s latest wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson), who is a low-key alcoholic who notoriously under-cooks everything. The plot loosely follows the story of potentially selling the family’s city brownstone and the possible exhibition of Harold’s work at his old university, but a health scare also brings the siblings together as well in hilarious ways, how they interact with each other and the hospital staff during the scenes at the hospital is genuinely amusing.

It’s an all-around terrific cast, with everyone excelling in their specific roles, but Adam Sandler is the true standout performance of the film. He is so good here. It’s a vulnerable and nuanced performance. In fact, he is so good that I was equally impressed by it and angered by his performance. Much like Punch-Drunk Love, it’s a reminder that he is capable of doing so much more than what he has been doing for much of the last decade. It’s sad to see someone like Sandler be so impressive in something like this because it makes you realize exactly how much talent he is wasting in stuff like The Ridiculous 6 or Jack and Jill.

The Meyerowitz Stories is another enjoyable Baumbach film about messy families filled with messy people. The comedy in this comedy-drama is derived from how that messiness often spills out in real and sometimes unexpected ways between themselves and sometimes in public in front of other people (There is a hilarious scene where Danny and Matthew both give toasts after wrestling each other). Baumbach gives us a family that feels real, not because we all have a Harold, Danny, Matthew, Jean, or Maureen in our extended family, per se. The Meyerowitz Stories is relatable because we have family members (or friends) that we can fall right back in with no matter how much time has passed, that can sometimes rub us the wrong way, can embarrass us in a public restaurant, ignore our insistence on seeing a doctor for that limp, and sing along to that old we made up when we were kids. People are messy because life is messy, and living with one another’s mess is what makes family.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars