Adam Sandler delivers one of his rare affecting turns as one of the co-leads in Noah Baumbach’s family comedy.
“Maureen, where’s the gourmet hummus?” asks Dustin Hoffman as bushy-bearded artist/patriarch, Howard Meyerowitz, as he stares into his fridge with a look of concern. The Meyerowitz Stories is Noah Baumbach’s juiciest comedy since 2012’s Greta Gerwig-starring hit, Frances Ha. It is peppered with witty lines and spiced with physical antics. Emma Thompson is Howard’s fourth wife, Maureen, a permanently sozzled New Yorker who, at one point, rolls her car ever so gently into a tree.
As a fast-paced talkie preoccupied with the eccentricities passed down through generations and the damages wrought by family life, the film evokes Hannah and Her Sisters-era Woody Allen. Deeper down, there are thematic parallels to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, with Dustin Hoffman equalling Gene Hackman’s performance as a ramshackle but charismatic father figure who boasts refined skill for pressing his children’s buttons. As Danny (a lightly moustachioed Adam Sandler) says: “I wish dad had done one big unforgivable thing that I could be angry about, but instead it’s tiny things every day: drip, drip, drip.”
‘Danny’ is the first of the film’s five chapters, and is immediately intriguing by virtue of having Adam Sandler adopting his little-seen sensitive actor mode. Given the slew of lamentable comedies that have become synonymous with his name, it is strangely moving to see the actor (unforgettable in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love) tenderly and competently singing duets with his 18-year-old daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten).
This film’s plot is a daisy-chain of comic vignettes, crafted to smuggle in the characters’ back stories and examine the emotional baggage that hampers these relations. Danny and owl-spectacled sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), are the family losers, while their half-brother Matt (Ben Stiller), a personal-wealth advisor, is pride of the Meyerowitz clan. Matt still has daddy issues, however, as Howard uses their time together to gripe and grumble, rather than to dispense much-longed-for affirmation.
Howard’s issues, which his offspring are forced to inherit, stem from an early-career burst of recognition for his art, followed by decades of growing obscurity. Taunting him is the success of a man who was once an equal. Indeed, one fabulous set piece takes place at the private launch of this rival artist’s new collection at MOMA. A celebrity, cameoing as herself, politely acknowledges Howard’s existence, and he proceeds to repeat this comically minimal tidbit as an anecdote, wearing it as a badge of honour throughout the film.
Dustin Hoffman is the Atlas, whose acting muscles balance the film’s charming tone. Howard Meyerowitz is a crotchety problem-creator, but baked into Hoffman’s physical identity – his small size, his lopsided grin, and (in this film) his mighty beard – there is soul to his brittle brand of humanity. Ben Stiller is on top form, delivering a more earnest and contained performance than the tightly-wound neurotics he has played in previous Baumbach collaborations (Greenberg and While We’re Young).
Although this is a male-weighted movie, there are no dud characters, and a democracy of humour is the currency. The relentless pace of the dialogue is at times exhausting, and the tone never really varies, yet this is forgiven when, hours after viewing, you find yourself grinning into the ether, remembering standout hoots from a cornucopia of Meyerowitz tales.
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