Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Although Noah Baumbach's film The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), now in theaters and streaming on Netflix, proclaims itself beholding to the short story, in fact, the movie seems designed according to the specifications of the novel -- indeed, at one point, an allusion is make to an antecedent to the film, the family chronicle Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann.  Since Baumbach's film details three generations in an extended family, it is difficult not to see these reference as a wink to the audience.  The movie is hyper-realistic, detailing events that seem to occur over a period of ten weeks or so with a coda, perhaps, three months later.  Short stories are focused and limited in scope, Baumbach's picture, however, has a host of minor characters, some of them portrayed with Dickensian zest, and indulges in a number episodes and subplots -- some of them fairly remote from the film's principle subject.  This is a prestige product with a deep bench -- there are A-list actors everywhere that you look and most of them are given dramatic scenes with emotionally intense monologue on which to chew.  Once acclimated to the film's somewhat diffuse approach, I found The Meyerowitz Stories thoroughly entertaining, although not without some serious flaws.

We're in Woody Allen territory with this film: the characters are hyper-articulate, highly educated Jews in Manhattan.  The characters are all divorced or getting divorced; people have difficulty with relationships and there isn't much stoicism on display -- everyone expresses him- or herself loudly and melodramatically.  The patriarch of the clan, Harold Meyerowitz is an elderly sculptor who hasn't really established his name in the art world -- he understands that he is a footnote in the art history of his era and this outrages him.  Meyerowitz, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a disagreeable narcissist -- he makes every conversation about himself and has either abandoned or suffocated his three children.  (He's done the same to the women in his life -- married four times, we see that his current spouse, played with appropriate pathos by Emma Thompson, is a helpless alcoholic.)  The two children that he abandoned, Danny and Jean, (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel respectively) are lost souls -- they are ruined, feckless, incapable of maintaining serious relationships.  The son that he suffocated with his attention doesn't like the old man, although he bustles about being officiously helpful to him -- this part is played by Ben Stiller.  As is often the case in troubled and dysfunctional families, the grandchildren get along better with the old man than his own sons and daughters -- in this case, there is a loving granddaughter who deeply admires her artistic grandfather and, in the film's final scene, even searches out his artistic legacy.  (His dealer once sold a sculpture to the Whitney Museum and it has been lost in that institution's warehouse.)   The film is structured around a series of confrontations between family members, heightened when Harold suffers a brain hemorrhage. This family crisis pulls all the characters into close, and uncomfortable, proximity and Meyerowitz' ultra-articulate Jews are forced into encounters in which they reveal their grievances, fears, and emotional wounds.  It's a bit too much.  Years ago, I saw a Broadway play directed by Robert Altman named Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.  The show was noxious in that every fifteen minutes one of the characters would bare an emotional scar and, then, pontificate at length on how someone else was responsible for inflicting that life-changing wound.  The last forty minutes of the movie frenetically reveal all sorts of emotional injuries and this culminates in a lengthy and excruciating scene in which Ben Stiller cries pathetically at a gallery opening -- poor old Harold has one piece in the show but thinks it's all about him.  It's so realistic that the sequence ends up being just embarrassing.  This is followed by an equally bathetic speech by Adam Sandler.  The point is not that these speeches are unrealistic -- to the contrary, they are realistic and the kind of thing that you often hear at funerals, for instance, when grief-stricken relatives are invited to speak extemporaneously:  this is always painful but the suffering has nothing to do with art.

The general theme in the film is that adult children need to make peace with their parents, accept their flaws, and break away from the family melodrama.  This is convincingly dramatized and some of the movie is quite funny.  Baumbach is alert to people's misunderstanding of themselves -- although Harold is not a great sculptor, something his vanity keeps him from seeing, he was probably a great teacher.  His métier was teaching young people about art -- but this is not how he saw himself.  The film has several minor characters who are indelible:  Judd Hirsch is excellent as Meyerowitz' contemporary who has been wildly successful -- he has an opening at MOMA attended by Sigourney Weaver.  Adam Driver, who is ubiquitous, plays one of Ben Stiller's clients.  (Stiller is some sort of financial planner).  Candice Bergen has one short, but moving scene -- she's a gracious woman and apologizes in a dignified way to her children for being part of the carnival around Harold that left the kids essentially abandoned and forced to raise themselves.  Even underwritten parts, such as Jean, have nice scenes:  when someone asks her why she is loyal to her selfish, incredibly vain, father she says simply:  "Because I am a decent person."  Baumbach's approach to his material is more serious and less joke-oriented than Woody Allen's consideration of similar issues of family dysfunction -- Allen's movies are "situations"; he sets up a "situation" and, then, works out its consequences.  Allen, of course, is a consummate short story writer, not a novelist, and, so, his films are much more tightly designed.  A slight relationship exists between this film and Wes Anderson's The Royal Tennenbaums -- this is manifest, particularly in scenes, that seem forced, involving the granddaughter's film making.  (Her movies are fake pornography with lots of simulated sex and nudity -- Adam Sandler, playing her father, watches those films with no apparent discomfort, a whimsical misstep, I thought, in the film's verisimilitude.)  Curiously, the figure that Harold Meyerowitz most represents is Larry David as portrayed on Curb Your Enthusiasm -- Dustin Hoffman with a patrarch's beard comes across as whining, unfunny Larry David.  

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