Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Collected) (2017) - Movie Review

The plot: Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is a sculptor, retired arts professor, and the patriarch of a family full of aspiring and at least formerly-aspiring artists. His son Danny (Adam Sandler) moves back in with Harold and his wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) and begins to reconnect with his family roots. However, as Danny interacts with his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), he begins to reflect on the upbringing that Harold gave all of them, and if he can improve in terms of raising his own daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten).

When I looked at Sandy Wexler earlier today, I mentioned that it seemed like Adam Sandler was starting to get good again. It took less than a minute into this film before that faith I put in him felt like it was being acted upon. Not only is he quite funny, dramatic and entertaining to see play the piano, his performance as Danny is the most natural the man has been on screen in a very long time, possibly ever. The way he conveys all the pain and regret and quiet loathing of his character, and make it look like he’s not even acting to get all that across, is frankly astounding and I can easily see why everyone is hyping up this performance as much as they are: Because this is the kind of role that could be the big paradigm shift Sandler needs.

It helps that he’s surrounded by top-notch acting talent as well. Hoffman’s depiction of the very self-centred and rather toxic head of the family definitely gets across how he ended up screwing the lives of his children in varying ways, and that characterization makes it easier to sit through a new Hoffman performance in light of his own allegations during this year: We’re not really supposed to like this guy. Stiller makes for a solid part of the family dynamic, being the only real businessman in the family who has certain hesitations about his lease on life. His scenes opposite Sandler make for some of the most emotional moments of the film, and his chemistry with both him and Marvel really helps sell that these are siblings, half- prefix be damned.
Marvel is easily the most downtrodden presence here, and once we get to the point where we see how Harold’s attitudes affected her upbringing, it gets really damn uncomfortable but never feels like it doesn’t deserve the vitriolic reactions that accompany that revelation. Thompson as the sloshed mother does well, Judd Hirsch as one of Harold’s contemporaries fits in nicely, and Van Patten rounds off the cast with a look at where the family bloodline is headed, adding a good dose of optimism to what is a pretty heavy film.

Having covered Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young a couple years back, it’s a definite joy to see that he’s sticking with that approach to human creativity in the characters. With how closely-knit a lot of family units are, certain fascinations tend to catch on over the generations. Here, we end up getting acute doses of both the good and the bad that that can entail. On the good side, we see how much the arts bring this family together. Danny and Eliza sitting together at the piano and playing a song that they wrote together when Eliza was just a child is a genuine tear-jerker of a scene, showing how personal art can truly touch the human heart. On the bad side, we see how that same artistic drive wound up either driving the family apart, or worse, bringing them so close that their rather unhealthy connections chipped away at their own ambitions. When we see Matthew vehemently declaring to his father “I beat you!”, we get a good glimpse of how familial jealousy and even regret can poison the creative well.

However, far more than just being a tribute to the complexities attached to art (culminating in another ending that perfectly encapsulates everything this film is aiming for, similar to While We’re Young), this is a look into the complexities of familial relationships. No matter how much love or loathing a person has for a specific family member, it is never as simple as just saying “I hate you” or “I love you”. As much as that kind of proximity can lead people to learning who the ‘real’ person is at their core, it can also unearth a lot of reasons why proximity isn’t the best idea.
To this end, we have the triad of Danny, Matthew and Jean. Danny ended up being the most detached from Harold growing up, and while he definitely picked up certain traits like his egotism and his frank shiftlessness, he also bears a lot of resentment about that. Matthew, on the other hand, spent the lion’s share of time with Harold during his upbringing, and yet wound up being about as separated from his views as you can get. Rather than wallowing in artistic visions, he grew up more practical and became successful in terms of business because of that. And yet, he also harbours resentment towards not only Harold, but also Danny, who he looked up to and even felt jealous of. And then there’s Jean, who is stuck in the middle and uncomfortably at peace with a certain incident involving one of Harold’s friends as a child that… well, sounds pretty familiar with Hoffman’s own allegations in mind.
Between them all, we get a series of complicated notions concerning living up to one’s parents vs. living up to one’s own potential, coupled with how family interactions over the course of several decades can result in a lot of conflicting information. The old phrase goes “you can’t choose your family”, and when it gets to the point where certain relatives have done and will likely keep doing this kind of damage… maybe it’s time to make a better choice.

And speaking of choices that should have been made to make things easier on everyone, this film follows in While We’re Young’s footsteps in another fashion: Namely, that it contains a consistent sticking point that prevents me from enjoying this as much as I wished. However, rather than being an issue with the writing this time around, it’s instead because of the efforts of editor Jennifer Lame. The film’s narrative is presented through a series of chapters, each focusing on one particular member of the Meyerowitz family, and some of them can feel at odds with the overall progression of the film. Not once but twice do we get characters ending up in hospital between cuts, but that isn’t the ultimate problem. Rather, it’s how jarring the transitions are. Either we’re given fades-to-black in rapid succession, or we get rather abrupt cut-offs for scenes, just splicing right into a separate moment. It’s incredibly distracting, which for a film this enthralling is rather surprising but also quite diminishing. Even with how well-structured the writing is as far as characterisation, the plot progression as a result of the editing can feel too loose for its own good.

All in all, despite my misgivings concerning the editing, this is genuinely impressive. The acting is phenomenal, with Adam Sandler giving a performance so good that you wonder why he isn’t always this engaging, the writing balances ruminations of creativity and examinations of troubled families to make some rather fascinating points, and the story itself feels like an honest look at a family full of talented but damaged people. Noah Baumbach continues to be a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and I’m rather curious about who the next faded actor will be that he brings roaring back to life.

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