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‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ Review

| Friday, November 10, 2017

Dominique DeMoe | The Observer

“The Meyerowitz Stories” is a film that tries to be something it isn’t.

The movie is about empathy, loss, family, forgiveness and love, but it tries to be something else. It tries to be a movie that can be as funny as it is dramatic, that can be as quirky as it is touching and that can be as relatable as it is distant. In doing so, it falls flat, becoming more of a comedic melodrama set in all the wrong circumstances.

The film centers around a disjointed family — broken up by divorces and varying levels of success — that tries to come together in harmony to celebrate their father’s life and his work as a sculptor. The film has all the necessary elements to be fantastic and truly touching — a unique conflict, an incredible cast and an artistic director — but the director and screenwriter Noah Baumbach ultimately takes the film in the wrong direction.

One of the most detrimental actions Baumbach takes is forcing his characters into certain molds instead of letting them characterize themselves. Danny Meyerowitz (Adam Sandler) is an unemployed, anger-inclined musician who throughout the entire movie strictly sings, screams, fights or longs for his father’s affection. Matthew Meyerowitz (Ben Stiller) is a successful, unsympathetic, down-to-earth accountant who for the movie’s entirety is either apologetic for his wealth, mediates fights or struggles to convey his emotions. Maureen Meyerowitz (Emma Thompson) is the neglecting father’s alcoholic second wife, who appears in a drunken stupor or excessively drinking alcohol during all of her interactions with other characters.

They are all characters that could have had dimensions and layers to them, but characters that Baumbach forces into what he wants them to be. They are an alcoholic, an angry musician or an emotionless accountant — nothing more, nothing less. It’s a technique that without a doubt adds humor and quirkiness to the dialogue and the actions of the characters, but one that ultimately if removed would have improved the film. The plot and conflict in the film set it up for drama and real emotion, but Baumbach in restraining his characters creates a lackluster comedy and synthetic emotion at most.

Aside from Baumbach’s directorial and narrative choices, other parts of the film fall flat as well, particularly in the acting department.

This comes as a surprise. The illustrious cast includes Academy Award winners Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, comedy kingpins Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller and rising stars like Grace Van Patten. None of the cast — with the possible exception of Stiller — lives up their potential. Hoffman’s character’s depth gives him a shadow of what he’s capable of working with; Sandler fails to replicate his serious, insecure “Punch-Drunk Love” character he saw so much success with in 2002; Thompson isn’t able to do anything with a virtually lineless, alcoholic character and Van Patten overacts nearly every sequence she’s in as a conflicted teenager — failing to ever materialize into something believable and poignant.

The poor acting is partially due to directorial decisions by Baumbach and partially due to the merit of the cast — regardless, it falls flat. The cast is a ragtag group of comedians, dramatists and newcomers who just simply couldn’t capitalize on a movie that tried to mesh their conflicting genres together.

If the movie is a testament to anything, it’s to the kind of films Netflix movies are. Being on Netflix and receiving the press that it did, “The Meyerowitz Stories” has been watched millions of times. If the movie were in theaters, however, that would never have happened. The film won’t pull you out to the movie theater, where it would pull $20 out of your wallet. Rather, it’s the kind of film your finger might be inclined to click while you sit on your couch. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s a “why not?” kind of movie. Netflix realized that and they capitalized on it — at least more than any traditional distribution studio would have.

All in all, the movie could have been great, but it isn’t. It could have been a “Lost in Translation” or “Manchester by the Sea” kind of film — one that doesn’t try to be too much. But “The Meyerowitz Stories” isn’t that. It’s a film that has the necessary structure and plot to do that, but one that tries to get cheap laughs instead of building a human connection with its audience. Maybe that’s what Baumbach wanted — kudos to him if he did. But in a world where cheap laughs abound and empathy tends to fall through the cracks, it would have been nice to see the latter.

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