A well-deserved TV-MA. You'll discover in this review that I really like this movie, but Baumbach does that thing where he throws a few remarkably offensive things into the movie. Also, this movie is littered with the f-bomb, so keep that in mind when watching some truly offensive scenes attached to a pretty innocent movie.
DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach
Do you understand how frustrating it is when a title mirrors the way I format my headings? It now looks weird. Where does the title start and stop? This also messes with my entire philosophy about Noah Baumbach. I really got burned by The Squid and the Whale. It was one of those movies that got me so frustrated that I became hesitant to give any other one of his movies a fair shake. I still watched them, but I never fell in love with them. They always kind of fell into this "okay" zone, where I acknowledged that they weren't complete wastes of time, but they weren't my jam. As a film nerd, you are supposed to like Noah Baumbach. But I refused to be a hypocrite and I refused to fake-like him just for the street cred. The same thing happened with David O. Russell. It took me a long time to forgive him post I Heart Huckabees. But The Meyerowitz Stories completely made me rethink watching his entire oeuvre. Not only that, but I've also rethought my position on the whole "Netflix Originals as disposable media" philosophy. (If you didn't know my thoughts on Netflix original movies, I always thought many of them are pretty good, but there's nothing there to invest in because it required no sacrifice to watch it. I don't believe this after this movie.)
I will say that Baumbach does what I don't like in his movies in this one as well. Eliza's movies are just meant to be shocking, which I don't care for. I get it. The commentary is how early film students think that shocking is good. But I kind of really believe that Noah Baumbach believes that. He keeps doing it! Okay, he's at least done it twice. But there is a way to tell that joke without being so overt with it. Showing reaction shots would have done it. Also, doing one movie would have told the joke. I didn't need to see that joke twice. Admittedly, the joke is pretty funny, but it's not as good as Baumbach thinks it is. But this is really my only big complaint about the movie. The movie hits so many of my buttons that I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is okay with a very R-rated movie. Primarily, this is a story about relationships with fathers. I have different daddy issues, but daddy issues in general resonate with me and the problems here are fascinating. The big issue is how complex Harold Meyerowitz is. Harold is not a good man, but he's also not outright a bad man. I have to applaud Dustin Hoffman for his portrayal in this film because that nuance and balancing act that he pulls off is what grounds the movie. Harold is realistically annoying. We love The Greatest Generation, but there is an odd personality quirk that comes with being part of this era. (I'm going to get ripped apart for this.) I don't know if this is just an old person thing, but I can think of oodles of people of Harold's age who get passive-aggressive and secretly selfish. They say the meanest things and no one can yell at them. These things aren't necessarily said with hate, but as matter-of-fact statements. That's who Harold Meyerowitz is. He is a selfish man who tries to ride the line of martyr and con man. He lives in a world where he is the most important person in the universe and anything that contradicts that attitude causes him to run away or attack that problem. His fight is to say that he is going to punch it in the nose. His flight is literally running away from problems. This man must be extremely hard to grow up with and that is the central internal conflict with Matthew (Ben Stiller), Danny (Adam Sandler), and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel).
It's a little bit of a bummer that the story focuses primarily on Danny and Matthew because Jean's story seems to be a complex as the brothers. I don't know if this is an active form of sexism or rather the fact that a male auteur tends to write inherently male experiences. But I find it interesting that Jean's perspective is the closest one to being right in the movie. I think Baumbach has to be aware of this. There's a line that Jean pipes in with her opinion during one of Danny's speeches. She is making her presence known, despite the fact that it has been woefully underserved in the rest of the story. The even more baffling thing about the whole Jean thing is that Jean isn't an undeveloped character. In fact, Jean's backstory might be the most fleshed out. She has a whole speech in the woods behind the hospital that is there for a reason. She is also the most self-aware of the situation. If anything, Jean's problem is that she might be too healthy to actually carry the narrative. It is what makes Danny and Matthew's story far more interesting. I remember hearing somewhere that therapists often tell patients that their problems may not be as hard as someone else's, but they are more personal than other people's problems. Danny and Matthew definitely have real issues with Harold, but objectively they don't hold a candle to Jean's. Jean just handles it better. I think that the story is really about Danny as the protagonist. Ben Stiller's Matthew does hold quite a bit of screen time, but Matthew's realization is a very light switch choice. (It's okay. Unlike Anakin Skywalker's light switch moment, Matthew needed one thing to happen to him to wake up from his stupor. And it isn't exactly a light switch. There are baby steps before one giant step is taken.) But Danny is the more sympathetic of the two brothers. If Matthew is about apathy, Danny is about quiet desperation. Matthew wants to separate himself from his father unless he hears "I'm proud of you." Danny simply wants acknowledgement. He is Cinderella. He wants to be valid and accepted for being a good man. I really like Danny's character.
Sandler isn't terrible. I remember really liking him in Punch Drunk Love and I always wondered why he didn't go the Bill Murray route, picking films that show off his acting prowess. I know that reviews are eating up his performance in this movie. I think he's very good in this, but there are a few moments that have rough edges. Sandler will always have his angry Sandlerisms, but they overall work in this move. There are a few times where it feels like his comic character, but that's only to be expected when someone has made a schtick work as long as he has. Danny is the kind of hero I really like. He is a broken good person. He doesn't always get it right, but he always tries to get it right. Danny's main problem, for most of his life, is the idea that there is shame in asking for love. That's really tough. Asking for love reeks of desperation and you can only really do it once. My theory, and I'm sure I could write a pretty sweet paper on the whole thing, is that his limp represents the turmoil he is hiding inside. He is so used to burying his own needs that he can't even take care of a medical issue that has a solution. He sees himself as worthless and not worthy of attention. That's what I also like about the will they / won't they of Danny and Loretta. I don't want to get into spoiler territory, but what Danny discovers about Matthew's sculpture at the end really hit home. It is such a quiet moment that should be a hurricane of violence. Baumbach does something in this scene that is nearly perfect that I would consider a bit of a misstep. The scene works so well in its continued tone of calm hurricanes that just looks goofy. The idea is cool, but it is the zoom on Sandler's mouth. If you want to explain how this shot works, please write so in the comments or on my Facebook account. I don't know why this shot is done, but that scene is nearly perfect.
Matthew is a nice element to the story, but I found myself bonding with him less. I don't like his hypocrisy. It's the message of the movie, so I suppose that I have to get on board. I'm not supposed to like everyone, but I can't stop thinking about how people hurt their kids with selfish reasons. Remember, Matthew is the victim of a negligent and selfish father. He even says that he is becoming his father, but he doesn't really his poor behavior. Normally this is great for me, but it makes me mad because Matthew is supposed to be a sympathetic character. I don't want to make this at all political, but there is an interesting trend that I'm seeing character archetypes. Matthew and Harold are characters I see (often more broadly than in The Meyerowitz Stories) that represent the artistic, liberal, intellectual elite. These are the people I want to be, but they are always fundamentally unhappy. Is the argument happening in these stories that "We're right and we're going to fix the world, but we're all miserable?" Harold and, to a lesser extent, Matthew treat people absolutely terribly. What is the logic of selling this character? It makes for absolutely riveting stories, but these characters are just the worst sometimes. It's why I love Woody Allen movies, that are filled with these characters. I love the lifestyle. Reading books and creating art constantly, but sacrificing everyone for their art? I think I complained about this when I talked about The Awakening.
There is so much more I could say about this. Maybe I'll write a Catholic News Agency article about the relationships a little more. Regardless, give this a whirl, but realize it is very R.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.