The Meyerowitz Stories, director Noah Baumbach’s latest is a delight, playing like a blend of Woody Allen’s sharp New York set comedy dramas and Wes Anderson’s whimsical tales of familial dysfunction. Dustin Hoffman plays Harold, the patriarch of the disjointed Meyerowitz family. He’s an eccentric sculptor who put his career over his various wives and children throughout his life. This upbringing has clearly damaged two of his offspring: the emotionally unstable divorcee, Danny (Adam Sandler in terrific Punch-Drunk Love form) and the dry, laconic Jean (House of Cards’ Elizabeth Marvel).
Harold gave more of his love and attention to Matthew (Ben Stiller), the son from his second marriage and Danny and Jean’s half-brother. As Harold suffers a health scare, the dysfunctional half-siblings, along with Harold’s current constantly tipsy wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson), must reconcile their differences and come to terms with their family history.
The Meyerowitz Stories is a film of polarities. One moment, its quiet and introspective. The next, its cheerfully manic. It feels fiercely authentic but also in moments absurd. Baumbach mines his script out of universally irritating things about family. Like how if one is part of a familial unit, it’s very easy to be brutally honest, even rude to another member. Or how in order to make themselves heard by the people they love, family members will talk over each other and interrupt conversations incessantly.
Yet, while this may not sound like the best way to spend nearly two hours, Baumbach script is top notch. He takes almost an hour to build the relationships between the central players and to subtly establish conflicts. Then, when tensions come to a head in the film’s second half and our main characters squabble over various agendas per scene, the script bounces between them often to dizzying, overwhelming effect. The movie at times can almost be a little exhausting just in terms of sheer amount of dialogue, particularly as its filled to the brim with funny anecdotes, great zingers and call-backs. Examples include Maureen bragging about sleeping with Willem Dafoe in her youth, Matthew’s interaction with a druggy musician client (a welcome cameo by Baumbach alum Adam Driver) or Harold’s constant unabashedly selfish behaviour in public.
Baumbach’s direction is delicate but fun. His use of sudden close-ups and camera zooms help emphasise the humour on display, as does the editing by Jennifer Lame (Manchester by the Sea, Mistress America). The suddenness of how scenes collide into one another does a great deal to establish a snappy, comedic energy.
Every actor perfectly inhabits their character. Sandler is excellent as a man filled with anger and resentment – the bottling up of which (in order to care for his daughter – a charming Grace van Patten) seems to have left him with a limp. Stiller is reliably great in the straight-man role. Hoffman is perfectly cast as an artist who feels his minor talent makes him superior over others. Thompson is clearly having so much fun as her louche step-mother figure.
However, it’s an unrecognisable Elizabeth Marvel who steals the show as Jean. She gives a multi-layered performance, beginning as a caricature of a defeated, permanently hangdog middle-aged woman but develops into someone who feels real and has pathos. Also, a huge portion of the jokes in the film rely on Marvel’s wry delivery. Meanwhile, her stilted bodily movement throughout makes the moment where Jean suddenly must run arguably the best gag of the movie. In fact, the character of Jean embodies the qualities of The Meyerowitz Stories: tragic, stifling, witty and very likeable – just like family.