SPOILER ALERT: This movie is currently available on Netflix. It is a fantastic film, and I would never want to spoil it for anybody. I highly encourage you to watch the film before reading this review.
Two different people can walk into an art showing and see entirely different meanings in a given piece of art. Family is often like that too. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a fantastic portrayal of how a family legacy is a fallible work of art.
For all the times I've joked about Adam Sandler's recent movies, I must give him his due here. He is fantastic in this film. I think this is easily the best work I've ever seen from him, and I'll be rooting hard for him to pick up acting nominations as awards season continues. As Danny Meyerowitz, Sandler is back at his man child ways. But this time, he isn't over-the-top. He says so much in silent reactions and well-timed pauses. Danny is the first family member we meet, as he is trying to park his car in Manhattan with his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten). She is about to start her freshman year at Bard College, where her grandfather Harold (Dustin Hoffman) used to teach art.
Harold is a semi-successful sculptor whose work has gone out of demand, as opposed to his old friend L.J. (Judd Hirsch), whose work is being shown at the Museum of Modern Art. Harold is now living with his current wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson). She is not, however, mother to Danny or Harold's two other adult children - Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) or Matthew (Ben Stiller).
The writing of this movie is marvelous for how quickly each character is given their own persona. Part of that is the familiarity we already have with these characters. We know them because, in many ways, our own families are like this. Or at least we know of families that are like this. Despite all the step-mothers and half-siblings, the family ties are never confusing in this film. Part of that is the vigor with which the three children announce that they are "half-brother" or "half-sister." They make sure to always underline the differences between them. In a film plot, that helps create well-drawn characters. In a family, it simply creates distance.
Sandler's performance is the headliner here, but Hoffman is not far behind him. As the aging family patriarch he's the backbone of the film. Sandler carries it forward and gives the film's best performance, but Hoffman handles his character with precision. He's a narcissistic old man playing his regrets through his own children. At times, it's almost painful to watch as the elder Meyerowitz navigates the reality of where their family has ended up. Danny, he says, showed talent as a musician (something we see for ourselves in a touching moment where he plays a song on the piano with Eliza). But he never went anywhere with it, instead becoming a stay-at-home dad in a marriage that has now fallen apart. Matthew has become very successful as a financial planner. Harold praises his son, but in a sort of backhanded way by saying that the world has obviously told Matthew that his work is valuable while saying the opposite of his own work as a sculptor. But in his voice, we hear enough to know how Harold feels about the situation. He is a bitter artist holding the rest of the world, even his own children, at a distance.
But Hoffman is able to play this character in a way where he somehow still comes off as charming at first. And he has enough tender moments with his children (including a scene with Danny near the end of the film after he has had some health setbacks) that we remember he is, in fact, their father.
Stiller is fine as Matthew, but he is overshadowed by Sandler and Hoffman. He does get a few emotionally hefty scenes later in the film, including one where he breaks down while giving a speech about his father. But even in that scene, Sandler takes the mic right after him and takes back control of the movie. But honestly, that's not the best way to look at this film. Trying to decide who was best in their role is somewhat akin to how these adult children try to reconsititute their places in the heart of their father in his old age. At some point, it's more worthwhile to take a step back and look at the whole. Warts and all, their family is a beautiful thing. And the combined work of this cast makes The Meyerowitz Stories a touchingly tender film.
There are so many affecting moments in this film - from the scene where Danny and Eliza play a song on the piano together to Matthew chasing down a man he believes to have taken his father's coat. But one scene in particular actually moved me to tears.
Throughout the film, Harold tells a story of how Matthew helped him create one of his most beloved pieces. The story goes that Matthew was crawling around on the floor while Harold was sculpting. Harold even decided to call the piece Matthew. Near the end of the film, Matthew and Harold are talking as Harold is getting ready for bed. Harold mentions that he had to have made the piece in 1966 because he stopped working with bronze after that. Matthew makes the connection for the first time that it couldn't have been him who helped his father make the piece because he hadn't been born yet. For years he had been holding on to this special memory with his father. And it never happened.
My parents divorced as I was leaving college and heading into the adult world. Family memories come flooding back and you start to wonder if things were really as good as you remember them. It's painful for Matthew to realize that it was Danny who was crawling around on the floor when his father was sculpting. It's even more painful that Harold seemingly dismisses the revelation so quickly. But just because the memory is unmasked, doesn't mean that the bond Harold and Matthew have shared all those years is somehow invalidated. So too, I've learned that my family memories are not erased by changes in time and relationship.
It's a little funny that I've gotten to this point in my review without talking much about Jean. She's the forgotten one in the family, too. She even says that years of neglect have turned her into the most messed up family member. But as Danny and Matthew rage against each other (even literally in one scene) she is the quiet glue. We all have Jeans in our family. The characters in this movie are written so well. We get to know each one of them, and we see how their perceptions of their relationships to each other and the reality of the situation are sometimes incongruous.
The movie ends on an uplifting note about how family legacies are passed down. I know it sounds cliche, but it's true - this movie made me laugh, and it really did make me cry. It's a touching drama, and it portrays just how hard family dynamics can be sometimes. But amid all the pain and struggle, we're helping to sculpt a legacy together.
And that truly is something to cherish.
Note on content: There are two scenes in this film that contain blatant nudity. Eliza is studying film, and at different points in the movie, she sends her "films" for her dad to watch. As Danny even notes himself, Eliza's films are basically pornography. But the scenes are easily skippable. The movie also contains profantity, but the only violence is a scene where Danny and Matthew fight before a showing of their dad's work. There are many scenes of emotional difficulty that stem from dealing with family issues. But that is the power of this film.