Noah Baumbach’s latest movie, the rather dreadfully titled The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), feels incredibly familiar. A greatest hits grab bag of many of the character types and situations from his previous films. And it’s probably safe to say that few of those felt all that fresh to begin with. But greatest hits albums are – although we are frequently not all that happy to admit it – actually pretty fun. They don’t have the depth of a well crafted album or the more complicated and perhaps more interesting songs featured within, but sometimes you just want to while away an hour or two in the company of something engaging and familiar.
If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it kind of is, but that’s not to say there’s anything really wrong with The Meyerowitz Stories. It’s a funny, touching dramedy with fine, occasionally remarkable performances all wrapped up rather neatly, it’s just that in never reaching too far, Baumbach risks simply being somewhat safe and forgettable.
In never reaching too far, Baumbach risks simply being somewhat safe and forgettable.
The film opens with ‘Danny’s Story’ – the film is loosely spit into chapters that give different weight to multiple members of the Meyerowitz family – and sees Danny (Adam Sandler) trying to park a car with his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten). It’s fraught with anger, from Danny, and touching tenderness between the pair that makes you instantly snap into the rhythm of their relationship and accept them as father and daughter. Sandler has never been better – yep, even better than his turn in Punch Drunk Love – and whilst his ‘Sandler gets angry’ schtick does come into play, it’s used in a relatively restrained and focused way, and works to add a layer to his character rather than just for a cheap laugh. For the most part Sandler plays a comedic figure with a great deal of heart – he uses both maximal and minimal aspects of his physical performance to illicit certain feelings in the audience – and Danny’s emotional complexity, delivered with fine detail by Sandler, is the one area in which the film really stands out.
Sandler has never been better – yep, even better than his turn in Punch Drunk Love.
His brother, Matt (Ben Stiller), is the favoured sibling and a financial success – Danny has never had a real job and is living a sort of mild arrested development – but neither of them, or their frequently sidelined sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), really have a genuine connection with their father, a frustrated sculptor named Harold (Dustin Hoffman). Harold is a bit of a curmudgeon – he frequently threatens to punch people on the nose as a “protest” in a recurring joke that is so funny when delivered by a deadpan Hoffman – and finding old age difficult largely because he feels under-appreciated as an artist. And perhaps more deeply, as a father and maybe even a person.
The dysfunctional family are, of course, thrust together, tempers fray and buried antagonisms are brought to the surface, but even when the subject matter takes slightly darker turns – the spectre of death hangs over the film for almost an hour – Baumbach keeps things light, and his comedic touch here is really rather casual and sweet in a way that works exceptionally well. There’s some incredibly witty dialogue too, with a number of memorable zingers.
Baumbach keeps things light, and his comedic touch here is really rather casual and sweet in a way that works exceptionally well.
But once the credits roll, that’s kind of all that’s left. It’ll make you chuckle a number of times and maybe even make you feel a little choked up – but not much. It’s good, it’s fine, it’ll do. But afterwards you’ll have a hankering for something more substantial. Perhaps a double length concept album, or that quirkier, earlier record that didn’t entirely work, but boy does it make you stand up and pay attention.