Tuesday, October 3, 2017

FILMMAKER NOAH BAUMBACH DRAMATICALLY PLUMBS THE DEPTHS OF FAMILY DYSFUNCTION

For those who loathe the prevalence of big, noisy and CGI-laden tentpoles churned out by Hollywood, Noah Baumbach’s films always make for a perfect antidote. They’re small, intimate character studies and the only explosions they contain are people blowing up at each other in anger. His newest film, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES, is another of his complex examinations of family and how they boil over with dysfunction. This one, like his 2005 dramedy THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, paints a portrait of family dynamics that is often hilarious, but mostly it's an excruciatingly painful look at just how atrocious kin can be. And despite a heavy Jewish and New York City slant to it all, this is a universal story. Every family has their drama and we cringe while watching the events here because Baumbach is showing us it's all relative.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES is perhaps Baumbach’s darkest and most complex work to date. The film premieres Oct. 13 in theaters, as well as on Netflix, and it’s a warts-and-all portrayal of a dysfunctional family struggling to connect with each other during a few months bogged down by the waning health of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), the family patriarch. His oldest son Danny (Adam Sandler) has enough worries already before his dad's health crisis as he's dealing with a busted marriage, an independent daughter moving out and heading to college, and no hirable skills or employment possibilities since he's always been a stay-at-home dad. His step-sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is very troubled too. She's mousy, dull and inert, often staring unblinkingly at events around here while she all but blends into the scenery. She seems to be asexual, and in a family of oddities, Jane may be the oddest.


For decades, their father has fueled their blatant insecurities and inability to cope. He's an artist with the mentality of an utter narcissist. His ego has sucked all the oxygen out of the room for years, and his vanity shows no signs of ebbing even as he enters his late 70's. Harold is an endlessly cantankerous old fart and grows increasingly embittered as the world passes him by. His levels of neediness are only matched by his constant passive/aggressive needling of his children. 

He was once a promising sculptor but now he's living on the memories of his past laurels, still bending everyone's ear to his never-ending boasts. Danny and Jean try to please him, but he’s a tough nut to impress. He keeps them close, but is stingy with affection, using them mostly to feel superior. His treatment of them veers close to that of hired help. Even Harold's fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) makes it through the day by ignoring him. She even vacations alone and has developed a drinking problem as she excessively 'medicates' to numb her pain being in the family. 

Danny and Jean are each from a different mother too, which tells you how successful Harold was as a husband. He has another child, Matthew (Ben Stiller), from a third wife, but at least he's truly successful in his career. Matthew is the go-getter that his step-siblings can only dream of being, a financial whiz living in Los Angeles. But even with all his moolah, Matthew is not well adjusted. The persistent bullying of his distant dad still plagues him, and thus, Matthew walks on eggshells around everyone, even his clients.  


In fact, the only Meyerowitz who seems to have her head on totally straight is Danny’s daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). She's confident, calm, and breezily mature. Still, she has some overt neediness too. Eliza's student films are filled with outrageous sexual posturing and her in-your-face nudity. It would seem that everyone in the Meyerowitz family needs attention and affection after being starved of it for so long. 

The first hour of the film lays the groundwork for all these family dynamics and it's painfully funny. When they're all together, everyone in the family talks a lot, but precious little is heard. They all talk over each other or past each other. All the better, one supposes, to avoid hearing Harold brag endlessly. He name drops, relives his former glories, and turns every conversation around to focus on him. He even expects his offspring to hightail it to a restaurant 45 minutes early because he got there almost an hour before the set reservation. Harold's profession may be building sculptures, but his true talent is in tearing down his family.

One of Baumbach's strongest themes throughout THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES is how everyone in the family feels compelled to be artistic to follow in their father's footsteps. Between Eliza's short films, Danny's piano playing, and even repeated references about Matthew's ability to mimic, artistry drives a lot of the self-worth in this family. Even Jane brags about the funny videos she makes for coworkers' birthday parties at the office. The fact that none of the Meyerowitz' display exceptional talent, including Harold, is one of the slyer jokes of the film. And it underscores just how misplaced Harold's bravado is. 

Then, cresting into the second hour of the movie, Harold has a brain seizure and lands in the hospital. To reduce the potential infections and bleeding, the doctors place him in an induced coma. Now, with their dad mute in their lives, the three step-siblings must come to terms with their father's potential mortality, not to mention his lasting affect on them.


In the course of the second half of the film, Danny, Jean and Matthew truly bond, for the first time in their lives together, and they discover oodles about each other and themselves. And even while they learn a lot, Baumbach never overdoes the hugging and learning. The self-discoveries of these three occur in baby steps. This clan will never be a Norman Rockwell painting, and this is not a movie that yearns to be ooey and gooey. 

Director Baumbach brings out superb work from everyone in his cast, and he may have even coaxed career bests out of Sandler and Stiller. They're crackerjack comics, of course, but this film is mostly a drama and both actors ace their demanding parts. The aching vulnerability that Sandler brings to every scene is palpable. As good as he is at being a goof onscreen, it's ironic that his three best performances have been in dramas. (PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and FUNNY PEOPLE are the other two.) Frankly, his stellar performance here should be enough evidence to convince him never to make another film with Kevin James or David Spade again. 

Stiller plays the sensitivities of Matthew exceedingly well in a performance as nuanced as anything he's ever done. Still, he manages to get huge laughs throughout, especially when he's forced to speak on his absent father's behalf at an art opening. Matthew and Danny have just been brawling outside and then must attend the gala, disheveled and dirty from rolling around on the ground. Inside, Matthew hoists a champagne glass and tries to act normal while everyone stares at his bloodied nose, sweaty brow and messy clothes. It's hilarious, the best laugh in the film, yet Stiller really shines by turning that comedy into pathos as the scene goes on and Matthew breaks down crying. 


There are many such serious moments that are just as affecting: a fragile Danny finally snaps and viciously takes out his anger on his loving daughter; Harold's third wife Julia (Candice Bergen) apologizes with great deliberation for her shortcomings as a stepmother; Harold's new nurse (Michael Chernus) clearly is hurt and more than a little stunned by Matthew's insults about his performance. If you thought Baumbach's MISTRESS AMERICA could slyly sneak up on you and break your heart, this film does it even more so.

The director is in total control of his craft here and may have even gotten an award-worthy performance out of Hoffman. The veteran actor showcases all the nuances and layers of Harold's extravagant vanity, yet still sprinkles his character with enough roguish charm to explain why such an old man would still have such sway over everyone. Hoffman could have a real shot at winning his third Oscar in March if the studio promotes him in the supporting actor category. 

Towards the end, Baumbach makes some weird editing decisions as he relies on some heavy-handed blackouts to explain the passage of time. (Strange too, as the director's use of jump cuts that abruptly end scenes earlier in the film earn some of the film's biggest guffaws.) And I’m not sure why Baumbach has Danny wear a heavy leather jacket indoors so much, even when he's pairing the coat with summery cargo shorts. But no matter, this is one of the filmmaker's most moving works. It’s a film that is difficult to watch at times, but it remains a wholly rewarding examination of family, forgiveness and the need to matter. And who can't relate to that?

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