The Meyerowitz Stories ★½

The Meyerowitz Stories is the latest film from director Noah Baumbach. It has a star-studded cast including Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Dustin Hoffman. The film has generated significant buzz not just for its stars or its big name director, but for the controversy that it carried as a Netflix produced film riding through the festival circuit.

the-meyerowitz-storiesThe plot of the film is in many ways heavily reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. This isn’t surprising as Baumbach has worked as a writer on several of Anderson’s films. It similarly tracks a complicated family situation spurred on by a neglectful and at times insensitive patriarch. It doesn’t have the compelling visual components of an Anderson film though, and other than a few choices, mostly feels conventional. The story explores themes not unfamiliar to Baumbach’s other works. He returns to the world of the struggling and underappreciated artist in New York. It’s a little troubling that Baumbach can’t find a way to extend his artistic voice out of this narrow space.

As for the deeper themes of family love and strife as well as the difficulties of aging, Baumbach essentially does all the work for us. Fortunately, you won’t have to think about the film for long after it ends, as the story structure and cumbersome dialogue leave little room for missing even the smallest message from its writer. Given his usual talents as a screenwriter, Baumbach’s utter lack of subtlety in The Meyerowitz Stories is fairly surprising. Exposition abounds as characters verbally detail their lives and histories, sometimes seemingly for no reason at all.

Though the movie offers a few chuckles, the humor falls short as well, especially given the cast. One would think that with so many comedy legends and a writer with an impressive background in quirky comedy the film would’ve had a more refined sense of humor. Some silliness helps the film maintain a light tone, but The Meyerowitz Stories doesn’t have the tongue-in-cheek wit of something like The Squid and the Whale or Greenberg.

Baumbach attempts some interesting filmmaking flourishes as well, but they seem to exist more for the sake of their own existence than anything else. He intentionally cuts away from scenes early, often during heightened emotional moments. This stylistic choice could’ve been interesting but it felt more jarring in a film that was largely shot conventionally, and I’m struggling to see the thematic utility of such a choice. The segmentation of the film seems to want the viewer to consider the stories as separate “chapters” but in truth Baumbach only slightly shifts his focus from character to character to mask what is a thoroughly underwhelming and typical “daddy doesn’t love me” story.

The cast were all perfectly adequate in their roles. Hoffman’s Harold was the most interesting character, showing a bit more depth and complexity than his counterparts. While thoroughly unlikable, Harold drew sympathy as a forgotten and often maligned artist from a bygone era. I can’t help but think that much of the other praise heaped on these performances amounts more to aspirational head patting than actual artistic appraisal. It seems that many people so desperately want Adam Sandler to have another Punch-Drunk Loveesque dramatic breakout that they’re willing to ignore what was an acceptable but altogether middling performance.

It’s a disappointment to be reflecting on this film so negatively as I genuinely am a fan of Baumbach’s past work. Perhaps if this were the effort of a first time filmmaker I’d have been impressed by the competencies, but for a seasoned writer and director The Meyerowitz Stories simply felt amateurish. I fear that Baumbach might struggle to keep audiences interested in his brand if he can’t find a way to diversify. One can only stomach watching him make the same movie so many times.

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