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London Film Festival Review: The Meyerowitz Stories – “Tales well told”

Dustin Hoffman found himself stepping in to defend Noah Baumbach when the writer/director was (I suspect, not for the first time) asked if his latest project was based on personal history. It is a fair question. Baumbach’s back catalogue is riven with stories that are so close to the bone, so perfectly observed in their carcass-picking of family life, that they must come from a degree of personal investment.

This rich vein is further ploughed in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), this full moniker providing much about the story before seeing a single minute of screen time. But to skip the film based on its name would deny the viewer a funny and poignant movie easily as good as Baumbach’s previous work.

The Meyerowitz Stories focusses, somewhat unsurprisingly, on the Meyerowitz family. Set at some point in the 1980s, Patriarch Harold (Hoffman), is an artist-turned-lecturer not nearly as successful as he proclaims he should be. Harold lives with his fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) in an artsy Manhattan brownstone, where they are visited by Harold’s eldest son Danny (Adam Sandler) and only daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) to see off Danny’s daughter Eliza (Grace van Patten) to the same college where Harold used to teach.

Danny and Jean want to use the occasion to organise a retrospective of Harold’s sculpture and Harold wants to sell off his work to ensure that it will be displayed. Potential sculpture buyers found by Harold’s other son Matthew (Ben Stiller) are more interested in buying the loft, so Matthew flies in from LA to catch up with his semi-estranged family.

Divided into segments, the stories follow a linear theme at a critical juncture in this family’s existence, each segment more moving and laugh-out-loud funny than its predecessor. With high-brow references and low-brow comedy, it is a warming introduction to an intellectual, loving New York family.

Baumbach knows exactly how to mine affectations for comedy gold, using Maureen’s poodle (whose dog actor won the Palm Dog at Cannes – no joke) and musical numbers to lighten the load between moments of existential angst and seething bitterness. Anyone who has siblings will nod knowingly throughout the movie. And with a family dynamic this firmly established, the leads spend the movie attempting to break free of the constructed roles. The magic comes in watching such lovingly-drawn characters spar when crisis occurs.

This magic of the Meyerowitz Stories could only happen with a first-rate cast. Emma Thompson is especially funny, playing the verge of drunkenness right to the water’s edge. Her kaftan-wearing, crazy curly otherness is a nice counterpoint to a group of visibly disappointed Jewish men.

Higher praise still should be given to Elizabeth Marvel. Jean has been removed wholesale from a Woody Allen movie, and Marvel is effortless to watch, even when playing fifth fiddle. It is testament to her skill that she does so much in this quirky, smaller role. As the family lynchpin with limited self-worth, her bonding with Eliza at the end of the film is a joyful surprise. Van Patten is also lovely, the dynamic with her father is also touching, although why she had to show her bare breasts quite so many times beggars belief.

This is however, the story of a father and two brothers and it’s good to see Hoffman be not quite so nice.

Finally, The Meyerowitz Stories begs the same question asked after Punch Drunk Love – why doesn’t Adam Sandler do more drama? He is riveting when sacrificing career advancement (or, in fact, any kind of career) for the gains of fatherhood, having been bruised by his own father’s lack of care. Danny is the kind of character that only Baumbach could write, never feckless, always downtrodden and misguided. There are creeping Sandlerisms, including some choice swearing, but Sandler is the commensurate mild-mannered family man. Ben Stiller is typically wry, now firmly ensconced in this Indie comedy genre. If Baumbach can do for Sandler what his work has done for Stiller, the film world will be a better place.

Musical, emotional and comical, The Meyerowitz Stories are tales well told.

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