Noah Baumbach’s latest picture, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), differentiates itself from most of the past year’s films, in the best way possible. Each of the Meyerowitz kids are introduced by vignettes, giving us the feeling of an assemblage of short stories that are connected, especially with the bracketed “New and Selected”. It is the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in New York, portrayed by a refreshingly talented cast including the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel to name a few. The script is full of quickfire Jewish New-Yorker wit reminiscent of Woody Allen classics such as Annie Hall or Crimes & Misdemeanours, as are the apartments we see, full of books and art.
The Stories emanate from the “only artist in the family”, Harold Meyerowitz, as he puts it himself. His three children, Danny, Jean and Matt, all have very different relationships with each other and especially their father. Constantly working on his sculpture and aspiring for appropriate recognition led to displacement of time and care that should have been spent on his kids. As a result, they all share a bizarre mixture of respect and hatred towards him, but equally have become extremely self-critical of themselves.
Danny (Adam Sandler) is the eldest, and it’s by focussing on his sense of failure in the Meyerowitz clan that we begin. We’re introduced to him and his daughter as he tries to find a parking space in the East village, a notoriously stressful experience. Through a lot of commotion and a song on the radio, the pair radiate a comfortable, sarcastically-fuelled relationship.
Upon arrival we meet the others, and get a taste of what’s to come. It is a relief to discover Dustin Hoffman’s performance is not embarrassing or forgettable like “Meet the Fockers” (2004). Something that built Harold’s character in the film was his repeating of the same anecdote to each of his children, each time differently, each time searching for a specific reaction, and each time failing to get the reaction he wanted. He has expectations of how people should treat him and when those expectations are not met, Hoffman knows how to conjure up just the right amount of self-entitlement and passive-aggressiveness.
One of the best scenes of the movie occurs at the MoMA, where Harold’s friend L.J. has a new art collection on display. Arriving with Danny, apparently the only two in tuxedos, they are declined entry to the private showing as they are “not on the list” – Harold’s embarrassment starts here. Thankfully L.J. happens to walk by, greats them with a warm embrace and begins introducing him to New York’s social elite. It is clear that Harold can’t help but wonder why his friend and equal has his art exposed in prestigious galleries, but his own art has only gained a small degree of success, most of it still in the garage at home. The night goes on, Harold keeps getting ignored or cut off and soon he must leave.
The script is fluid in its reflection of authentic human behaviour. An example of this is the day Matt (a brilliant performance by Ben Stiller) and his father go to lunch. Dialogue goes back and forth without stopping for breath which the camera mirrors with a singular tracking shot. Matt wants to sell his father’s house and art, his life’s work. Both get increasingly flustered and amidst all the distractions never actually order any food.
Elizabeth Marvel (Jean) gives one of the most vibrant and unusual performances of the film, playing her awkward, deadpan but sensitive character to perfection. Her talent and role left me wanting a longer segment devoted to her, but the way it is is fitting to her part, as Jean is more of a wallflower, content with being on the side-lines.
The Meyerowitz Stories take you on a drawn-out emotional ride that is quite tiring, and it works. Baumbach hits the perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, proving his directorial and screenwriting talents. This is a film about the family you are given and the long-lasting effects of the quality of the relationships one has within that family. It’s about your life’s work, and ultimately how much we let that define our self-worth.