Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: "The Meyerowitz Stories" is a Great Family Drama That Finds Humanity in Humor

Scene from The Meyerowitz Stories
In 2005, director Noah Baumbach received critical acclaim for his dysfunctional family drama The Squid and the Whale. While he has continued to evolve as an artist, there's something painful in the drama's nuance. It's human and real in ways that only cinema can capture. After 12 years and several fascinating character studies, Baumbach returns to the family drama with Netflix's The Meyerowitz Stories, which pits Jewish comedians in a story that is funny and uncomfortable in the best ways possible. What follows is a film that captures the complicated relationship of a family torn apart by egos and neuroses. The film creates an authentic experience that will remind audiences of their own complicated and personal relationship to their parents and siblings. It may not be his best film since The Squid and the Whale, but it's proof that he still knows how to do ensemble films.

Baumbach's eye for character development is almost too slight. In the introductory scene, Danny (Adam Sandler) is trying to find parking. He circles the blocks several times while talking to his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). He gets annoyed by his lack of progress, which shines through in his frustration at music and soon other drivers. It's a slow build, and anyone who has been stuck in traffic will know well. It's the slow unraveling that brings forth true feelings about tough situations, of which shine through in stories of the other Meyerowitz family members: father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) and brother Matthew (Ben Stiller). It's a typical dysfunctional relationship in which Harold has an ex-wife and the brothers have a certain separation anxiety. The film follows the structure of the first scene, which starts calmly and ends with someone screaming in frustration.

It works because of how strong the comedy and performances are. Hoffman does a great job in capturing the aloof nature of an aging artist whose work is fading into irrelevancy. The simple act of someone taking his coat unveils how quick he is to judge. Likewise, Matthew does his best to keep it all together before accepting his father's flaws. The film is full of pent up anger that shines through in comedy with each character embodying certain Jewish family conflicts. There is little structure to what follows, save for an ongoing struggle to accept and forgive family for their past mistakes. Everyone is now an adult with experience behind them, and even that experience is brought into question constantly. When Danny is criticized for how he judges Eliza by Matthew, he snaps and performs an irrational act. The struggle for normalcy is constantly explored and rarely comes forward all that successfully.

Hoffman gives the best performance largely because he maintains a sympathetic attitude in spite of the growing frustration. He is a flawed man who has frustrated many people unsuspectingly. Much like The Royal Tenenbaums, the magic comes from how the cast plays off of each other, and this is especially true of Sandler and Stiller, who add a nuance to their typical comedic roles. Sandler in particular gives his best performance since Funny People by playing down his goofball persona with a more dramatic frustration. As he wears shorts to every public event, he manages to be a responsible dad and a sometimes uncontrollable narcissist. Baumbach does an excellent job of reeling in Sandler in ways that recent directors like Tom McCarthy and Jason Reitman couldn't. This isn't his most exciting role, but it's evidence that he could do something engaging and not embarrassing when the writing is good enough. As a supporting character, he brings his penchant goofy music and frustration in a way that has been sorely missed from the rest of his filmography.

Baumbach is a quiet filmmaker who allows the moments to dictate emotions. Sometimes it's something absurd, like a car driving carelessly into a tree. Other times it's more dramatic and painful, making one self-reflect on their lives as they shift from being self-involved to selfless. This is a comedy/drama that excels in capturing the humanity of its characters by reflecting what's real about them. Everyone is a bit annoying and doesn't handle stress correctly. Even then, The Meyerowitz Stories shows that there's ways around that and could lead to acceptance. It may be at times a bit overlong, but it's an ensemble film that doesn't waste a single cast member. Everyone is doing their part to make the audience laugh and cry, and it creates one of the best family dramas in years, and arguably one of the best Netflix films to date. It's got its problems, but so does everyone's family. 

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