Having a niche is no crime. Noah Baumbach has made an impressive career thus far from sharply-written tragi-comedies of American upper class angst, and he shows no signs of letting up. The Meyerowitz Stories is another addition to this oeuvre, and is an enjoyable and affecting, if familiar, entry.
Replying loosely to the broken-home scenario Baumbach so devastatingly observed in The Squid & The Whale, this film shows us a fractured family decades after the trauma in question. Dustin Hoffman plays the aged Harold Meyerowitz, sculptor of minor note and major ego, and doyen of dysfunctional familial relationships.
His sons Danny and Matthew are played with refreshing straightforwardness by Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, and his daughter Gina with reserve by Elizabeth Marvel. Amusing parts are given to Emma Thompson and Grace von Patten, but Hoffman’s is the performance of most note and of true merit. He embodies a calculated parental misanthropy familiar to dissatisfied children the world over, with acid and ill will.
The film’s opening scenes involve a somewhat straightforward series of episodes to establish the relationships at play (all of them broken). Thess segment feel uninvolved and arbitrarily designated, despite snappy scripting and amusing set pieces – we are being shown nothing new. When Harold falls ill and the action relocates, from Brooklyn to the countryside and a rural hospital, the film is reinvigorated. Hoffman’s nastiness is contrasted with his new vulnerability, and the conflicts each of his progeny is confronting become more interesting.
His manipulative streak and unkind acts contrast with Danny (Adam Sandler), a doting son who knows no other way to live. Sandler brings out the vulnerability and understated charm so rarely glimpsed since 2002’s Punch Drunk Love. It is a true shame that his talent has been so egregiously misspent on Netflix’s horrific Happy Madison ventures – we could have been enjoying his talent rather than dreading his appearances.
As the film wends towards a surprisingly saccharine conclusion it finds a degree of conventional rhythm and satisfactory plotting which sees it home but again questions the originality of what is being portrayed. It would be interesting to see Baumbach truly justify the “story” structure he imposes on the film – it is not a structure which obviously adds anything to the picture.
Baumbach has a gift for skewering the New York intelligentsia. Yet he could push himself further, and should. The Meyerowitz Stories feels like a minor Woody Allen piece – a pleasant stop-gap but lacking the depth of more considered entries. It would be interesting to see him apply his craft to a wholly new subject.