Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Meyerwitz Stories (New and Selected)

Director Noah Baumbach (left) on the set with actors Adam Sandler (center) and Dustin Hoffman (right)

THE MEYERWITZ STORIES (New and Selected)             B-                   
USA  (112 mi)  2017  d:  Noah Baumbach

Given a limited release in theaters while also available streaming on Netflix, this film was a surprising selection to Cannes, which had never allowed online streaming films before, creating something of a culture clash that was widely discussed, eventually outlawed in the future, passing a new rule which requires competing films at Cannes to at least make an effort at French theatrical distribution, where existing French laws mandate that films can’t be shown on streaming services until 36 months after their theatrical release, which seems extremely punitive, but is the final word on the subject.  Basically a bloated extension of Baumbach’s earlier and still most successful film, The Squid and the Whale (2005), as this similarly features another self-centered, narcissistic blowhard whose overbearing presence dominates the center of the film, Dustin Hoffman as the aging patriarch Harold Meyerwitz, whose days as a relevant and defining sculptor artist have passed him by.  Instead he’s forced to watch other so-called lesser talents dominate the art community, yet he is so vainly full of himself that no one else matters, with others reduced to secondary status and exhausting critical scrutiny, including his own kids who have been devastated by divorce and separation, bullying and then barely even acknowledging them, receiving little recognition or any of his time growing up, as he was too busy thinking about himself and his own relatively undistinguished career (yet he constantly weighs his children’s artistic merits against his own inflated view of himself), spending his days fuming about his work being ignored while working as an art professor at Bard College.  With a heavily Jewish and distinctly New York City slant, ostensibly feeling like a Woody Allen film when he loved filming on the streets of New York, the family dysfunction on display is cringeworthy, becoming a battle royale between two Meyerwitz sons from different marriages, misfit Danny (Adam Sandler), the oldest, already reeling from his own divorce, where he was a stay-at-home Dad and now has no job or work skills to speak of, and Matthew (Ben Stiller), way across the country on the West coast, raised by a different divorced mother in LA, a huge financial success story that his East coast siblings could only dream about, becoming a money manager for rock stars and the rich and famous.  Both hold extreme contempt for their aging, self-obsessed father, as they barely know the man, but also have a distorted sibling rivalry thinking the other is the favored son.  Left out of it all is Danny’s sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), shy and retiring, something of a wallflower, who’s always around but on the periphery, as the boys always take centerstage.  That’s the way it’s always been so she has no qualms about it, as it’s more like a situation she’s grown accustomed to, as there are some families where fathers simply extend much more attention to their sons.  Also exuding a near invisible presence is Harold’s fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson), a bohemian eclectic who survives by ignoring Harold altogether, taking trips without him, vacationing alone, while numbing the pain with some heavy drinking, her self-medicating solution, though pretending to be sober around Harold (who doesn’t notice). 

With each child introduced with their own chapter heading, shown through a vignette style of accumulated scenes, their distinctive personalities are constantly on display, where there is a great deal of agitation and personal rancor, where literally no one, not even wonder boy Matthew, considers themselves a success, as each is unraveling from heavy doses of personal failure and poor self-esteem, literally mired in their own self-loathing and contempt.  Appropriately enough, the film opens in one of Danny’s rages, screaming profanities at whatever’s nearby, cars, curbs, pedestrians, fighting a losing struggle to find a parking space on the streets of New York, eventually forced to pay near extortion rates for a space in a parking garage, which he finds humiliating, as what self-respecting New Yorker accepts failure in navigating the local terrain, which is specifically designed to make it more difficult for unfamiliar tourists who simply pay through the nose for their naïveté.  While we quickly catch onto the wavelength of patriarchal arrogance exuded by Harold, there’s an underlying level of annoyance and disturbance that defines these men, where just under the surface lies intense rage exploding at any minute, making them somewhat small-minded and detestable human beings, but then Danny shows another side, as he’s very close to his teenage daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patton), showing remarkable instincts with her, expressed in perhaps the most Cassavetes-like moment in any Baumbach film, a silly father and daughter piano duet singing a song from the family archives,  Genius Girl - The Meyerowitz Stories - YouTube (2:05), sweet, tender, and absolutely genuine, described as “a Meyerwitz and Meyerwitz composition.”  This instant humanization is an utter delight, easily the most poignant moment in the entire film, harkening back to the simplicity of Sandler’s early days on Saturday Night Live, which has always been his most charming period, Adam Sandler: The Hanukkah Song III - SNL - YouTube (4:16).  But that’s only a brief interlude, as the next day she’s off to college, up the Hudson River, following in her grandfather’s footsteps to Bard College, leaving an emotional void in Danny’s life, growing even more perturbed when he discovers his father is thinking of actually selling the Manhattan house, including most of his entire art collection, to prospective young buyers, a handsome interracial gay couple who have already made an offer.  Having just moved back home with his father after the divorce, this emotional upheaval is more than Danny can stand, as if the rug is being pulled out from underneath him, but his father reassures him it will be a family decision, in consultation with brother Matthew, which gets his blood boiling again, wondering why that rat bastard, who has never lived here, gets any say in the matter.     

Matthew happens to be in town on business and decides to meet his father for lunch, offering financial advice about the home, but they end up speaking over and on top of one another, both clearly infatuated with themselves and both refusing to listen, with Harold growing more and more irritated, walking out of the restaurant in protest, “like McEnroe,” a routine he pulls not just once, but twice, so by the third time when he runs away, Matthew has to chase him down on the street, both startled by the strange turn of events.  But things grow even more uncomfortable when they both pay a visit to Matthew’s mother, Harold’s second wife (Candice Bergen, who has since remarried into extravagant wealth), especially when she expresses sincere regret for not being a better mother to Harold’s three children, which sends both of them reeling out the door in shock, though likely for different reasons, as with Harold it’s all about himself, literally preening, exhibiting obnoxious behavior that is more than Matthew can stand, getting into a shouting match on the street with his father, exasperated at how little his father actually values him, so he offers retaliatory insults of his own, screaming at him as he drives away.  This sets up the weirdly uncomfortable finale, where Harold ends up comatose in the hospital from a brain seizure with blood rushing into his brain, where he’s literally at death’s door, but due to such a dysfunctional internal family dynamic, the doctors refuse to provide any information to the kids, which gets more absurd by the minute, becoming a game of musical chairs, as doctors and treating nurses simply disappear, leaving the beleaguered family to figure it all out.  While it does bring the three siblings together, for better or for worse, spending time at their father’s side at the hospital, but after a suspicious rough patch they seem to set aside their differences, where it’s actually a nightmarish childhood story by Jean that seems to quell the family resentment, with both brothers rallying to her defense, though the awkwardness with their father remains.  Do they love him or hate him?  Feeling more like a chaotic mess than a revelation, there are more than a few mawkish and slightly amateurish sequences, with Adam Sandler once again playing an infantile adult, where his films are simply a glorification of immaturity, which apparently sells well at the box office.  While he attempts to extend his range here (especially with his daughter), the buffoonery remains (especially with his brother), creating an uneven realm of emotions, where the most exhilarating moments are to be found in Eliza’s student films, which are manic diversions from reality, graphically explicit and sexually obsessed, where it’s hard to think of any father so easily accepting such a lurid display of their daughter’s nudity.  While it’s a male-dominated film, with Hoffman, Stiller and Sandler getting centerstage, strangely enough it’s the smaller moments with Eliza and Jean that are easily the most precious and gratifying, remaining unheralded and unsung, like they are in many families, dwarfed by the male antics of thoroughly detestable characters. 

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