Saturday 14 October 2017

Family affair: "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)"

The new Noah Baumbach film provides further confirmation of two very old saws. Firstly, it dramatises the idea that children either learn from or get damaged by their parents' mistakes; secondly, it demonstrates once again that, in filmmaking, casting is half the battle. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) centres on a family unit that, for all its sharp points and rougher edges, tesselates as a family unit should, and one made up of performers among whom we very quickly come to feel at home. A vaguely boho clan, something like Wes Anderson's Tenenbaums with the colour contrast turned down several shades, the Meyerowitzes are presided over by bearded patriarch Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a once-noted sculptor - referred to, with Godlike certainty, as "The Dad" - who now spends his days nursing a variety of career-related gripes and resentments, and projecting his own insecurities onto his already harassed offspring. Accountant Matthew (Ben Stiller) initially seems the family's golden boy, not least for having figured out a way to support himself, but his return to the family's soon-to-be-sold property reveals a kid still desperate to impress or just satisfy his pop; with the dowdy, awkward Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) overlooked seemingly on the grounds of being a girl, we're left wondering about the fate of black sheep Danny, a gentle, divorced composer found clinging onto his outwardly mobile 18-year-old daughter, a lifebuoy recovered from the wreckage of his marriage.

Danny is played by Adam Sandler, and his presence is the first sign of the excellent work Baumbach did right from casting and rehearsals. Here is someone who appears out of place in the world of MoMA-high art Harold moves in, yet right down to the sorry slump of his sadsack moustache, Sandler is deeply convincing as a decent, even sweet man who's had much of the stuffing knocked out of him - and has the limp to prove it; he more than holds his own against a bluffly brilliant Hoffman, a thoroughly engaged Stiller, the slyly scene-stealing Marvel, and even in one or two scenes opposite Emma Thompson as Harold's hippy-dippy new spouse, observed fussing over the whereabouts of her "good wok". Much as I liked 2005's The Squid and the Whale, I'd spent the past decade growing resistant to Baumbach's tales of Manhattan privilege, yet there's a maturity and warmth about his writing here, coupled to a heightened idea of how to use his actors and camera to frame all this talk. Witness the inspired set-up that congregates the Meyerowitz offspring in a hospital doorway as they learn their father's doctor is about to depart to China on holiday, a choice that immediately reduces these grown-ups to the needy children they are; or the pained (yet very skilfully sustained) heart-to-heart between Sandler and Stiller that gains a comic undertow from going back-and-forth across the same scrap of community-college lawn; or - and you cannot fail to miss this - Baumbach's dryly funny habit of cutting elsewhere whenever one Meyerowitz or another reaches the very end of their tether.

If, on the surface, the film dramatises the myriad ways family members will rub each other up the wrong way, it wisely proceeds from the assumption its viewers will be only too aware of this phenomenon, and that there's no need to labour unduly over the subsequent fallout - it's what keeps The Meyerowitz Stories from toppling over into the over-emphatic, sentimental melodrama of The Family Stone or that one with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman in it. More than this, the new film feels like a suddenly middle-aged creative's touching, tentative contemplation of legacy, and what (and/or who) we leave behind us after we pass into eternal storage: hence Harold's tetchy harrumphing at the thought of being included in a group show rather than earning an individual retrospective, a show at which Danny is struck by the idea that if his father wasn't a great artist, "he was just a prick". The consoling movement of the film, however, is away from exceptionalism and towards togetherness, and from Harold being thought of as "The Dad" to being one dad among many, including, just perhaps, the viewer's own. Suffice to say infirmity plays its part in this process, as it often does in life, bringing about change in not just the great Harold Meyerowitz but his sons and daughters, too - and Baumbach is wise enough to note the support networks even chalk-and-cheese siblings can form at moments of crisis. This is the kind of movie American cinema had to originate, and has had to keep making, because it never had a King Lear of its own to revive - and this is a very good example of that kind of movie.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is now playing in selected cinemas, and is also available to stream on Netflix.

No comments:

Post a Comment