Noah Baumbach’s films typically follow despicable, wholly unlikable human beings: protagonists that are almost impossible to care about, let alone root for. Yet his movies almost always display a sense of empathy for the flawed characters that inhabit it. His latest, The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) keeps this tradition alive, with flawed characters depicted in such a warm-hearted light that they appear uncomfortably relatable, and remain fascinating to watch.
Told in chapters, with each new segment focusing on a different member of the titular family, The Meyerowitz Stories often feels like a more grounded take on The Royal Tenenbaums. The film loosely structures itself around an upcoming art retrospective meant to honor the family patriarch (Dustin Hoffman), an event that is thrown off the rails due to some unexpected developments. In lieu of a traditional narrative, Baumbach fills his film with long, dialogue driven sequences that almost feel like short films themselves, not unlike the Connecticut sequence in Mistress America, his finest work to date. As a writer, Baumbach has a keen understanding of how to use dialogue to further the plot, build suspense, and add dimension to his characters, frequently infusing an incredible amount of detail into each exchange. But, his skills as a director allow him to capture this dialogue in an interesting, exciting way, establishing an emotional connection with the viewer early and consistently conveying the appropriate tone with each new scene.
When creating a comedy, screenwriters often find themselves on a tightrope while searching for the balance between “funny” and “believable.” When creating flawed, potentially unlikable characters, this rope becomes all the more difficult to maneuver. Yet, somehow, Baumbach manages to populate his film with engrossing, beautifully nuanced characters that easily resemble real-world human beings, without sacrificing indie-movie quirks. The bond between the three Meyerowitz siblings is well developed, with palpable tension buried beneath painfully fake pleasantries. Baumbach doesn’t go for the obvious dramatic moments, no matter how tempting they may be, and the film feels more satisfying, and more suspenseful, as a result, with viewers constantly unsure of what to expect next from these complex sibling relationships.
Meanwhile, the comedic characters feel like only slightly exaggerated versions of people the viewers may know in real-life. Hoffman’s Harold Meyorwitz, for example, comes off as a genuine curmudgeon, with the comedic beats involving his character stopping just before they get too cartoonish. The only exception to this rule is the character of Maureen, Harold’s third wife, played by Emma Thompson. While Thompson is game for anything, and does a nice job with the material she’s given, her character is underdeveloped and only slows down the story—a disappointment, when you consider how rarely we get to see Emma Thompson outside of a period piece these days.
But what is a great script without strong actors to bring it to life? Baumbach’s ensemble here is truly remarkable, with many actors giving career best work or, at the very least, turning in their best performance in a long time. Elizabeth Marvel, best known for her work in House of Cards, shines as the closed-off Meyerowitz sister, playing well off her more showy onscreen siblings but then hitting a home run with a killer monologue in the film’s last act. Stiller, meanwhile, relishes the chance to play the most conventionally unlikable character in the family, bringing just enough sympathy to the role to make sure the audience will relate to him on some level. And, when it comes to an actor as prolific as Dustin Hoffman, it almost goes without saying that a strong performance is delivered, with one particularly wonderful comedic sequence in a diner that should stand amongst the actor’s best work.
But the real MVP here is, of all people, Adam Sandler, who is terrific and tragic in what is essentially the biggest role in this ensemble film. Sandler subverts all his usual characteristics—his loud outbursts, gawky behavior, and general man-child attitude—creating a character that seems so lost in the real world that you can’t help but root for him on some level. Sandler is funny in the part, yes, but whenever he’s faced with a dramatic sequence he hits a home run. The movie’s best, most emotional sequence, works entirely because of him and the raw nature of his work; he wears his heart on his sleeve, and could even bring tears to the eyes of a particularly invested viewers. And, it’s also worth noting that 21-year-old Grave Van Patten does some fine work of her own as his onscreen daughter.
While it may not be the modern comedy classic that is Mistress America, The Meyerowitz Stories (New & Selected) feels like a culmination of the best things from Baumbach’s filmography. It’s fearless while exploring the unpleasant aspects of real-life, and filled with self-centered, perhaps unlikable characters, made all the more uncomfortable to spend time with because of how relatable they really are. But it’s also empathetic, sweet, and even quite beautiful at its best moments. An honest portrait of a bizarre American family, this is one of the year’s must-sees.