Sterling Performances Amount To Little Else In "The Meyerowitz Stories"

Writer-director Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” and “Mistress America” were, for this writer’s money, the two best films of 2015. Both found poetry in deeply self-aware characters with tragic blindspots, humor in cords of pithy, penetrating social observations. Moreover, Baumbach’s faculty for female-driven narratives shone in both, with “Mistress America” in particular standing up next to his 2012 film “Frances Ha” as two of the very best films about twenty-first century women. (Both were co-written by and starred his beau Greta Gerwig.)

The filmmaker’s latest, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected),” comes with none of these strengths, centered on a trio of neurotic male leads blithely unaware of their own insecurities and the outer world in general. It’s not much fun to boot.

In their first big screen collaboration since “Happy Gilmore,” Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller play half-brothers Danny and Matthew Meyerowitz, maladjusted middle-aged sons of graying, grouchy New York City artist Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman). Sandler and Stiller are engaging in their roles and Hoffman is resplendent, but they’re playing less fully formed characters than one-dimensional canvasses on which Baumbach is clearly exorcising familial demons.

The tenuous bond between Danny and Harold is fleshed out first, with Sandler’s familiar temperamental manchild making for a decent father to 18-year-old Eliza (Grace Van Patten) but an otherwise eternally lost soul in a sea of stuffy artists. Harold’s significant but not ubiquitous reputation hangs in the air like sawdust, choking out Danny’s hope of living up to his family’s name, much less his real but underutilized musical talent.

Stiller’s Matthew, a successful Los Angeles-based money manager and family man on the brink of divorce, has an even stormier relationship with Harold. When Matthew arrives in New York City for a visit, there’s an immediate uneasiness between the two, the void between them unchanged by physical proximity. In many ways, close quarters exacerbate their issues.

Hoffman is still a disarmingly enormous screen presence in his old age, a perfect fit for Baumbach’s alternately frail and kinglike patriarch. The maddeningly mercurial acting careers of Sandler and Stiller make them snug fits for Danny and Matthew, too. And yet, nothing the screenplay gives them to say or do is particularly compelling, leaving a trio of born performers to hold our attention on charisma alone. It works for a while. Until it doesn’t.

The pic’s ultimate shapelessness is felt most in its female characters. Harold’s daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and Danny’s 18-year-old daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) are abysses of characterization, with Jean coming off like a leftover from one of Baumbach’s collaborations with Wes Anderson. Meanwhile, a dull subplot about Eliza’s provocative student films is left exposed like a fresh hangnail, failing to bring out anything at all but a few awkward glances between father and daughter.

The film’s biggest liability is that it isn’t very funny, bereft of the witticisms Baumbach perfected in his collaborations with Gerwig. Here he leans hard on jump cuts to elicit laughs, as if aware that cutting his characters off mid sentence is more interesting than letting them finish whatever room temperature tirade they’re in the middle of. None of this is to say that the picture doesn’t try to be more; a scene in which Sandler and Van Patten play the piano together is stunning in its simplicity and candor.

All the same, the whole of “The Meyerowitz Stories” is what it is – a middling dramedy that’s hardly more insightful than the saying “it is what is.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: October 13, 2017
Studio: Netflix
Director: Noah Baumbach
Screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Judd Hirsch, Emma Thompson, Grace Van Patten