THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (2017, Noah Baumbach)
In the first scene, Dustin Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz has red scrapes on his face from what he claims is an incident with a dog. (“You should see the other dog.”) By the third act, Ben Stiller’s Matthew has gone from clean cut to bloody-nose and face-scratched, standing next to his red-knuckled brother Danny (a terrific Adam Sandler). The wounds that start with the father end up on the sons. We survive the worst of it, but we’re all a little scarred (even if, like Jean, those scars are on the inside).
Feels a little like Baumbach starting to repeat himself a few too many times, but when the dialogue is this good and the neuroses this real, it still works. Plus, admit it — you always kinda wanted to see THE SQUID AND THE WHALE with the characters grown up 20 years later, right? Mix that in with some ROYAL TENENBAUMS and you can predict where this is going and how you’ll feel about it. You may not be ready for just how good Stiller is in the requisite emotional breakdown scene, but you also won’t be ready for just how bad Hoffman is. The biggest drawback here is the alarmingly distracting line readings from a confused Hoffman — he looks like he’s just hoping he remembered the dialogue, so he rushes to the end of the take before he screws up, without internalizing any of it. Baumbach’s script nails how family members talk past each other without connecting, but when Sandler or Stiller have to play off an actor unprepared for this style, the results are dispiriting. Halfway through, when Harold undergoes a major life change, Hoffman’s performance settles down a bit and he’s more in his element. But those first 40 minutes or so are rough going.
Still, the running joke of Baumbach cutting away from a scene mid-rant is both superficially hilarious and a wry comment on his own repetitiveness. This guy’s daddy issues make Spielberg look positively healthy. But the joy is on the fringes — Emma Thompson’s superb capturing of a hippie New York Jewish mom; the hungrily pretentious student films (TRAMPS’s Grace Van Patten cleverly avoids a lot of teen girl clichés here); the floundering gasps at humanity when dealing with hospital staff. This may only appeal to a select class and personality type, but it’s never dishonest.