Reel Dad: Meyerowitz Stories examines parental relationships

 

We experience, as adults, the realities of watching parents age. We observe changes in how they behave, reductions in what they can do, adjustments in how they live. We share their joys in remembering the past, their disappointments in what they missed. And we support their routines as we recognize that we continue to age, too.

Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) — a feature at this year’s New York Film Festival — examines the emotional complexities of relationships with aging parents in a framework of broad comedy and drama. When the film succeeds, it shares insights into how people cope with the passage of time. But, when the movie misses, it shows what can happen when a filmmaker fails to translate what may work on paper to what will work on screen. Ultimately this becomes a missed opportunity to articulate the range of reactions that parents can generate. The film disappoints because of how much it could have accomplished.

Baumbach’s setup promises more than it delivers. The elder Meyerowitz, played by Dustin Hoffman, is a retired college art teacher who dwells on the pain of being forgotten. His New York City apartment is a museum of creations, a collection of works that define his point of view and symbolize his aspirations. He reaches out to former colleagues with envy; he relives his accomplishments with exaggeration. And he tries to defend how he raised his children, now adults trying to balance their challenges and obligations to him.

Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller star in The Meyerowitz Stories.

The film captures these tensions. The older son, essayed by Adam Sandler, is a man trapped in his own regrets. How he tries to reconcile his inconsistent relationship with his father gives the film its drive. The son simply wants to be what the father intended but doesn’t know how to please him. The younger child, portrayed by Ben Stiller, hides his failures with trappings of success. That he lives what his father hoped for only deepens his insecurities. This man is bewildered by the reasons for setbacks, blinded by the suave he brings to interactions.

When the film focuses on relationships, it works. But Baumbach spends too much time exploring individual backstories that make the film into more of a series of disconnected episodes than a synchronized narrative. We see too much of the sons’ solo anxieties while the father remains off screen. Baumbach lets his joy for telling these stories detract from the core relationships. And he eventually runs out of screen time to let these connections naturally evolve.

The performances are mixed. Sandler and Stiller reveal fresh depth in their portrayals, each reaching beyond comic stereotype to create realistic people. But Hoffman chews scenery in a style that overwhelms the story and Emma Thompson is simply odd as his second wife, a bewildering bit of casting that gives the actress too much freedom to exaggerate.

Despite its weaknesses, The Meyerowitz Stories does challenge us to rediscover the truths in our relationships with our parents. No matter its weak attempts at broad comedy, the film’s message rings clear, that as children, we may never fully understand what our parents had in mind when we were born.

Film Nutritional Value: The Meyerowitz Stories

  • Content: Medium. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach seems more interested in using the issues of aging as plot points than thoroughly examining their impact.
  • Entertainment: Medium. Thanks to the performances by Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, and the relationships they pursue, this visit to a dysfunctional New York family entertains.
  • Message: Medium. While any chance to look at the issues of aging can be meaningful, Baumbach’s tendency to leave the core relationships undermines its potential.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to explore the lives of aging parents is relevant to a world where the baby boomers continue to deal with family challenges.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. Most family members will find something to talk about as, together, you spend a few days with this collection of characters.

The Meyerowitz Stories is rated TV-MA for brief language, sex and nudity. The film runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. It is streaming on Netflix and showing in area theaters. 3-1/2 Buckets.

Silver Linings Playbook: A Romantic Comedy Gem

By Mark Schumann

Father of Three

Throughout our lives, we sometimes learn to love the people we love in spite of who they are as much as because of who they are. And the more time we share, the more we realize how essential patience, tolerance and humor can be to a successful relationship. It isn’t always enough to love someone; sometimes we have to learn how to live with their realities, too.

Just as The Meyerowitz Stories faces challenges balancing these serious themes with broad comedy, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook strikes a perfect combination of touching pathos and entertaining humor.

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook.

This marvelous film dares to examine these issues as it tosses aside our conventional expectations for a romantic comedy. While most entries in this genre follow a typical script (boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl and boy tries get the girl back before the credits roll) Silver Linings refuses to follow the menu. Its romantic hero is fresh from the mental institution with challenges involving complex medications, overbearing parents and unpredictable tantrums. And the girl he wants is, actually, the ex-wife who doesn’t want anything to do with him. As he struggles to find a new life he meets someone who, for better or worse, is no better or worse than he, a woman so frightened by her shadow that she can only create realities she can manage. Together they try to bring order to their lives as they realize emotions can be impossible to organize.

Russell, the prolific creator of Flirting With Disaster and I ♥ Huckabees, uses his unique voice to articulate the dynamics of relationships in absurd moments and outrageous people we easily recognize. While we may not actually fill our lives with such extreme situations, we observe enough surprising moments to recognize the symptoms. As with the best of his films, Russell refuses to apologize for the weaknesses of any character; he might argue that what we consider a flaw is, actually, ultimate strength. Russell simply wants us to accept who these people are and, through them, become more willing to view our own actual worlds.

Propelling the film are superlative performances from a stellar cast. This was only the 14th time in Academy Award history when one film was nominated in all four acting categories. For those of us who think of Bradley Cooper as a man suffering a hangover, his performance as the endlessly hopeful romantic is a breakthrough; from his first moments on screen he brings a compelling urgency to every conversation and situation. Jennifer Lawrence reveals what a fascinating comedienne she can be as she discovers every natural bit of humor in the most tragic and absurd moments. Robert De Niro, after years of faking his way through Focker movies, reminds us how powerful he can be as the troubled father and Jacki Weaver, so memorable in the Oscar-nominated Animal Kingdom, is again unforgettable as the sympathetic mother.

No matter where you are as you start watching the film, Silver Linings Playbook welcomes you to its inviting world of complex people who simply want the world to slow down. You may recognize a few of them.

Film Nutritional Value: Silver Linings Playbook

  • Content: High. Any time we can spend an evening with such unique people is always enjoyable and memorable.
  • Entertainment: High. Writer/director David O. Russell is sassy enough never to let us know what he wants us to think no matter the movie moment.
  • Message: High. As he reinvents the romantic comedy, Russell makes us think about as he winds his way through exaggerated forms of reality.
  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with your older children about the realities of relationships is worthwhile.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older children will have a lot to talk about even if the situations on screen appear distant from day-to-day life.

Silver Linings Playbook is rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity. The film runs 122 minutes. 

5 Popcorn Buckets.

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