The Bohemian Realism of ‘The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected)’

The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) is essentially Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums with all the good stuff removed. Eccentric New York family? Check. Hypochondriac Ben Stiller? Check. Illustrative chapter titles? It’s all there. But gone is Anderson’s whimsy, visual uniqueness and very particular understanding of childhood, and in are the entitled grumblings of his contemporary (and Fantastic Mr. Fox collaborator) Noah Baumbach, whose previous films have ranged — in my opinion — from Vaguely Watchable to Aggressively Insufferable, the latter being most persistent in his recent Greta Gerwig vehicles, which rely on the audience’s desire to watch Gerwig dance along the streets narcissistically and sob about how hard it is to be white and educated in modern America.

These elements aren’t entirely absent from Meyerowitz, but the strength of this film’s cast (and one performer specifically) works wonders for the writer/director. As Danny Meyerowitz, the older, less successful son of Dustin Hoffman’s stubborn patriarch Harold, Adam Sandler is at his best since 2009’s Funny People. Sandler’s inherent vulnerability (and the sense in every film that he’s a bit depressed) has allowed for some heartbreaking performances in the past, but there’s a fresh weariness to Danny that really allows him to shine. Danny’s dynamic with daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) is the heart that justifies the film, and their piano duet — even as early in the running time as it comes — is very touching.

Also on impressive form is Hoffman as the renowned sculptor who doesn’t feel sufficiently renowned anymore. He’s delightfully difficult to be around, and it later emerges — thanks to the discovery of a ticket for The Fault in Our Stars — just why that is. Emma Thompson pops up as his wife, but isn’t really given time to grow in the fairly one-note role; the same is largely true of an unrecognisable Elizabeth Marvel as the one Meyerowitz daughter, but a later twist involving her character provokes some solid work.

Ben Stiller is also in this movie. Having complained numerous times recently about Stiller and the perpetual mediocrity of his work, I must credit the broadly impressive work he delivers here: a crying scene towards the end is overwrought but well-acted, and he proves a good match for Sandler when they eventually share the screen.

Ultimately this is less The Royal Tenenbaums and more akin to the hangout movies that Sander and Stiller have successfully led in the past. You almost expect Jack Black to show up somewhere. Danny and Harold’s excursion to MoMA brings subtle slapstick brilliance, as does Matthew’s assailing of a Frenchman who has supposedly stolen his father’s jacket. Occasional glimpses of what Eliza is producing at film school — involving much nudity and a few foxes — are deliberately juvenile, and give a flavour of how much more fun The Meyerowitz Stories could be if a second writer had taken a pass at Baumbach’s script.

It’s all mostly enjoyable, but when Meyerowitz turns on the sentiment in its third act and tries to be A Movie About A Problem, its disparate ingredients don’t quite click together. It’s about half an hour too long, and there are multiple fake-out fade-out endings; one gets the sense Baumbach was so delighted with his cast, he didn’t really figure out what movie he wanted to make.