I eagerly awaited the release date for writer-director Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) since hearing about the film over a year ago. The main reason I was interested was simple: Adam Sandler in a rare serious role. Understandably, as many poor films as Sandler has been in the last few years, there are still a few he's made where he's shown that he is capable of more than just funny noises and crude expressions. (2002's Punch-Drunk Love and 2004's Spanglish still hold up as brilliant dramatic roles on his resume.) Furthermore, the pairing of him with fellow comedian (and friend) Ben Stiller, the legendary Dustin Hoffman, and the always-stupendous Emma Thompson, sounded like an intriguing pairing.
The film centers on the legacy of a famous art sculptor, Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman), whose estranged children from previous marriages reunite for a celebration of his life's work and eventually his impending health. The oldest, Danny (Sandler), is a struggling musician currently divorcing his wife, and with an 18-year-old daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), on her way to college. Matthew (Stiller, a Baumbach regular) is a successful businessman whom Harold seemed to direct most of his attention and affections to. And then there's Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), an introvert who represents the sibling or family member most people would easily overlook.
Baumbach seems to specialize in stories of dysfunctional families and imperfect relationships. (His previous credits include 2005's The Squid and the Whale, 2008's Margot at the Wedding, and 2010's Greenberg). And the premise of Meyerowitz seems conventional on the surface, what with all the family members assembling under complicated circumstances. What makes Baumbach's script unique is how grounded in reality it is, and how his actors put 100-percent of themselves in their characters. This is a character-driven piece, after all; an expertly-directed one, at that. And it's easy to see why members at the Cannes Film Festival early this year went crazy for it.
In fact, it's terrific seeing Sandler in serious mode again--a case in point why he should do more similar work in his career. His willingness to not only play Danny straight but to play him with real conflict and neglect--and alongside other acting heavyweights--showcases perhaps his best screen performance to date. Ditto for Stiller, Marvel, Hoffman, Van Patten, and Thompson (as Harold's loopy current wife, Maureen). There are also many poignant scenes that illustrate the pain these characters feel towards their father, as well as the persistence they try to endure through this time. "Maybe I need to believe my dad was a genius," says Danny, "because I don't want his work to feel like crap."
|(l-r) Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel|
Having been purchased by Netflix, the film was slapped with a TV-MA rating (equivalent to an R-rating or above). I knew there would be profanity issues (which there are) and other dysfunctional-related themes and content issues (which there are plenty of). After all, such stories typically tell of the feelings of disappointment, regret, or lack of success, that parents have on their children. And Harold has had that kind of effect on his children, whether through divorces or different homes or career choices or so forth. Matthew, at one point, confronts him by saying that he feels like a jerk because of his father.
But the biggest slaw that breaks the camel's back here is not so much these characters' feelings of neglect and lack of success. The biggest slaw is, in particularly, their neglect of certain current issues and effects, particularly Eliza's choice of career: pornographic filmmaking. It's bad enough audiences learn about this--twenty minutes into the film, as a matter of fact, which made me lose hope in the film. However, audiences are not treated to one, but two completely unnecessary scenes showing clips from Eliza's films, with dialogue and images too graphic to even describe. "That was really hard-R," comments Jean after viewing one of them. Harold rightfully criticizes it, saying that "people should not allow their kids to do that." To add insult to injury, Danny and Matthew later encourage Eliza in her acting endeavors. I personally found these elements degrading. Also, Harold is eager to watch new premium cable channels later on, one with a film called Sex Tape. Such is the case of irony. With all of the sexual harrassment controversy going on in our culture currently (that is, news of famous people who've been forced or forced others into sexual-related activities), is it really any different when a parent allows (and condones) their child to participate in sexual-related activities by their child's own free will? As Meyerowitz celebrates family unity and attempting to resolve past conflicts, it seems to neglect and condone such current effects.
I'll say it again. Solid acting and direction alone do not a great movie make. Therefore, I cannot place The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) on my "Standout Films of 2017" list. I wish I could.