A difficult father. His complicated set of children, each of whom love him but feel slighted by him in different ways. Health scares and reckonings. Embarrassing public outbursts. I mean, The Meyerowitz Stories is an almost textbook example of the patriarchal family film in all its colours and tones. And Noah Baumbach isn’t reinventing the wheel by giving it another spin. Maybe it would’ve been more subversive if the put-upon Julie (Elizabeth Marvel) had a plum role in the proceedings and an arc that extended beyond a five-minute monologue. Maybe it would’ve been more subversive if he changed Dustin Hoffman’s Harold to be a woman and got Emma Thompson to play the character instead (her role here is merely peripheral, even though she milks her screentime as much as she can). What I’m saying is: does every film about a Jewish family have to be fundamentally patriarchal in nature? What about one in which the patriarch is already dead and his widow is forced to do the heavy-lifting? What if there were more daughters in the family than sons? Wouldn’t that mix things up a bit?
What Baumbach presents here is still involving. He’s very good at creating a believable set of characters who, while they can be eccentric, are still grounded in real world concerns. Harold has spent years being resentful about his obscurity as a sculptor. Son Matthew (Ben Stiller) bears the burden of being a bigger success than his dad (even if he’s not an artist). Danny (Adam Sandler) wishes he wasn’t an afterthought, as does Julie. There’s a lot of antipathy and self-absorption that churns above buried affection, and at least Baumbach gives this well-trodden territory a bit of directorial panache by stylizing the film as a series of vignettes that are literally emotionally stunted (as in, they tend to cut off at peak emotional climaxes). In the hands of someone else, I would’ve been less generous, but Baumbach has proven many times before that he can elevate his scripts with the right vision. So even though The Meyerowitz Stories lacks the magic of Frances Ha or the emotional import of The Squid and the Whale, it still manages to justify its existence by veering off the beaten path—even if just slightly.