Writer/Director Noah Baumbach’s track record speaks for itself. From his collaborations with Wes Anderson through to the wonderful Squid and the Whale, and engaging indie dramas like Frances Ha and Mistress America, he set his stall out as an interesting and highly watchable filmmaker, with a focus on character, rather than plot-driven stories. So the prospect of a Baumbach movie with a quality cast and Netflix’s distribution behind it ought to be a shoe-in shouldn’t it? Well, it ought to be, but sadly The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) misses its mark quite badly. It represents an excruciating low point for the usually excellent Baumbach.
Plot wise, we are in similar territory to both Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums and Baumbach’s own The Squid and the Whale, with dysfunctional family patriarch Harold (Dustin Hoffman) gathering his kids around him in a series of events and interactions. The siblings, Danny (Adam Sandler), Matthew (Ben Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) each have their own baggage and issues with Harold, who is a creative, yet bloody minded force within the family.
Unfortunately the similarities end there. Without the hyper stylization or peculiar warmth of an Anderson/Baumbach picture, we’re left with a bunch of abrasive, grating characters. Harold could be the twin of Jeff Daniels’ Bernard in The Squid and the Whale, embittered by a career that didn’t reach its expected heights, and letting spite and jealousy turn him into a borderline fantasist. Danny and Matthew feel obliged to connect with Harold, while Jean and stepmother Maureen (Emma Thompson) lurk on the periphery.
But there’s something amiss. The family unit doesn’t feel natural. There’s neither enough conflict nor competitiveness, nor love amongst the siblings for us to buy it. It’s too bland, too beige, too nothing. Hoffman’s distant father sort of works, but he’s such a cantankerous presence it’s hard to see why the kids bother. There is no softness in this movie to pumice its hard edges. No contrast to show us any deep feeling they might have for each other (one car vandalism sequence aside). So, it’s hard to gauge each character’s motivation, outside of misplaced familial duty.
To single out any particular cast member would be to acknowledge investment in a film that forces you to lose interest long before the credits roll. But incredulously, Adam Sandler is pretty decent. Stiller is also fine, and Hoffman is okay, but all are hampered by deeply unsympathetic roles. Leaving Elizabeth Marvel with very little to do as third wheel/sibling, Jean.
Even the dialogue feels stilted for a Baumbach movie. There are times, particularly when Matthew is introduced, that it feels more like a narrator’s exposition than anything a person would say naturally.
With successful character based movies, like Richard Linklater’s output for example, the characters might not always be likeable, but they are at least human enough to possess some good qualities, thus making it easy for the audience to stick around. All the characters in The Meyerowitz Stories are dicks. Fuelled by petty jealousies and hung up on the past, they constantly bicker and talk all over each other. It’s like watching a flock of angry geese… for two hours.
Presented as several chapters in the life of the family, the movie is edited in this same abrupt manner, leaping ahead without notice and intentionally cutting off characters mid-sentence. What was clearly intended as either commentary on their behaviour toward one another, or as an offbeat stylistic choice, succeeds only in being obnoxious.
For such a bitty and disjointed narrative, The Meyerowitz Stories still manages to hit nearly two hours of run time, and that obnoxiousness is a theme that runs all the way through it. We are given absolutely no reason why we should spend time with these ugly characters, and so ultimately it’s probably better that you don’t. With such contrast to Baumbach’s wonderful earlier output, The Meyerowitz Stories is perhaps 2017’s cruellest disappointment.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10