' ' Cinema Romantico: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The core problem “The Meyerowitz Stories” chronicles concerns, as it occasionally has throughout the canon of writer/director Noah Baumbach, the patriarchy. In this case the culprit is Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a New York sculptor whose success likely lies as much in his mind as in the actual physical evidence, and whose ego and insecurity trickled down to his three children, all of which are recounted here in stories separated on screen by unflashy title cards suggesting something less than the fussy exactness of a Wes Anderson fairytale than a book of short stories with only one copy for sale at some independent bookstore no one goes to. The examinations of the sons Danny (Adam Sandler) and Matthew (Ben Stiller), who returns to New York from his west coast home, are ordered first and second and both much longer than the chapter devoted to Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who only gets a monologue. Yet that is also just right. If she is, as she says, still as screwed up as them, she has nevertheless made a hard peace with it, while they continue flailing around, unable to put a finger on what ails them, even if that cure seems to be drifting just underneath the surrounding omnipresent noise.

You see this acutely in the movie’s opening scene. Baumbach does not so much graciously invite us into “The Meyerowitz Stories” as just unceremoniously drop us right into the midst of it, with Danny in his car, trying to find a place to park and shouting at the car tailing him. This stridency is only amplified by the ongoing conversation with his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), in the driver’s seat, not to mention Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam’s “Head to Toe” blaring from the radio. Lord, it’s a lot to suddenly adjust to. And yet, if you pay attention to the sweet, easy way this father & daughter converse, how they find common ground in the music, you can sense the impressive stability of their relationship pulsing even amidst the cacophony.

Indeed, the characters don’t really talk to each other in “The Meyerowitz Stories” as much as talk around and over one another, or only to themselves. A scene at a hospital where Danny and Matthew walk and talk, the camera following them into an elevator and back out, is a virtual symphony of sidesplitting non-communicative communication as Danny badgers Matthew with follow-up questions that suggest he never heard what Matthew said in the first place. Great lines just sort of oddly emerge in the middle of otherwise serious discussions, like Harold deflecting Danny’s line of questioning about why he’d sell their family townhome by turning his attention to the Mets game on TV – “Cabrera just grounded into a double play” – that is richly evocative of how the character operates on a wavelength apart from everyone else and that no one can quite tap into.

Baumbach, working in concert with editor Jennifer Lame, underscores all this confusion with myriad curt cuts. He not only hurls you into scenes unprepared, he yanks you out of scenes, over and over, before they even feel as if they have finished, like a confrontation Matthew and Harold have with a couple tourists the latter suspects of swiping his coat. It builds to a kind of comical release, but before that release arrives, the movie cuts to the next scene, leaving you to wonder what happened and putting you in the headspace of these brothers who still have questions they want answered. This confliction is evident in the performances too, with both Stiller and Sandler oscillating between kindness and aggression. A late scene where they fight deftly evokes this idea, a transition from niceties to wimpy punches as chaotic as it is natural.

That sequence occurs at an event intended to honor Harold, where each brother gives a speech, focusing on their dad, one right after the other. And while both speeches kind of go belly-up, it never feels forced, particularly Danny’s, which might be Sandler’s best onscreen moment to date, where he channels all the anxiety and accidental generosity he has ever evinced in any of his other good performances into a heartfelt awkwardness that rings true. These moments are also intended to bring Danny and Matthew a certain kind of closure with their father, though why I will refrain from saying, except that Baumbach doesn’t quite stop there, even though it feels like the movie might, and keeps rolling, as if casting off closure as some kind of myth, forcing these characters to keep rolling with their newfound feelings.

The most interesting scene at this event is when a young woman approaches Matthew, asks if he is Harold’s son, and proceeds to explain what an influence Harold had her, casting art that Matthew had hated, that others had sort of scoffed at, as something meaningful. It’s evocative of all The Meyerowitz Stories, how they appear to say one thing, except that seen from another angle they appear to say something else, and how so often the tools of progress can only be seized upon when caught in just the right light.

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