A dysfunctional family reunites around their father's pending retirement.
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Starring Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Dustin Hoffman
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
The Meyerowitz Stories should be a film that hits close to home. I, like Ben Stiller’s Matthew, do not have a close relationship with my family. I moved across the country, putting hundreds of miles between myself and them pretty much only because I could and I wanted to. I don’t go home for holidays. I don’t particularly feel bad about any of that, despite a barely-audible, Danny-like voice in my ear wondering if maybe I should. The part of The Meyerowitz Stories that rhymes with my life, however, is also the one that makes this a frequently irritating film. I was just talking with Blair about how freeing it is to decide to not care what your parents think of you, and to see the characters here make their lives worse in pursuit of their shitty father’s approval is me knowing better than them, and I don’t know anything. Director Noah Baumbach repeatedly returns to films about sons and fathers, usually about the latter being too self-absorbed to care about the former. This is his most intense examination of that theme, but he covered all of it 13 years ago with Squid and the Whale. It’s one thing for teenagers to wake up to their father being human and fallible and a dick. It’s far less appealing when adults do the same.
This viewer is always going to be sympathetic to a story of waking up to the lazy falsehoods of unexamined tradition, and Come Sunday is exactly that. Having only recently listened to the excellent This American Life episode that inspired this adaptation of Reverend Carlton Pearson’s dark night of the soul, Joshua Marston and his talented cast caught me at just the right moment. The confluence of an evergreen theme and the freshness of the real story should’ve added up to a quality experience, but Come Sunday is too bland to make much of an impact. This story is powerful enough to get me tearing up at work when it’s in podcast form, but the cinematic version has me distracted and bored.
HBO’s original programming, consisting of series, movies, and miniseries, have a clear laggard in that trio. The movies don’t have anywhere near the cultural persistence that either series or miniseries have, despite HBO’s considerable marketing and development prowess. The standard format for feature-length films are adaptations of real events, and the strictures of sticking to history don’t let the actors do much more than impressions of well-known figures while the directing is utilitarian A-to-B event tracking. These are sometimes great, like the you-are-there history of Path to War or Conspiracy of the early-aughts, but have lately been Al Pacino in a series of bizarre wigs or make-up as he trolls for Emmy awards by playing disgraced public figures. Literary adaptations are more comfortable in the miniseries category (Empire Falls, Olive Kitteridge), and after reading the Wikipedia plot description of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, that may have been the better route. Ramin Bahrani attempts to cram a lot of plot and character motivation into 100 minutes, and ends up exchanging believable arcs and actions for ostentatious camera movement and bludgeoning political satire. If this is the art that survives the Second Civil War, we’re in trouble.
The Iron Giant takes place back when America was great, and all that that implies. Monochromatic coastal hamlets, packed diners, and comfortable blue collar work keep everyone happy and docile, painting a picture of ideal life with no conflict or disagreement. This bubble is in danger of popping from contagions all around. Sputnik beeps across the upper atmosphere. A filthy beatnik is running the scrap yard. Most of all, a sentient robot alien is romping through the forest, chomping on cars and recklessly exploring. Brad Bird’s stellar debut uses these interlopers to tell a big-hearted story of courage and wisdom. He mixes cultural commentary on an insular and paranoid time with the kind of raw emotion and epiphany that works so well on this viewer.
A multi-part oral history of mid-20th century Mississippi, Dee Rees’ Mudbound feels familiar and unique at the same time. Black people toiling under the thumb of Jim Crow has been visited in films like Mississippi Burning, The Butler, Loving, The Help, and plenty of others. These kinds of stories often have the pure criminality of the KKK lurking around the corner, with virulent racists crafting a picture of evil so palpable that it’s almost manipulative. When there isn’t a family of noble sufferers weathering this storm, there’s benevolent white people around to serve as middle men or in contrast to the cross-burners, like these white people are ok and in no way complicit. Mudbound has some of those tropes, but it also holds them at arm’s length and broadens the tapestry. Rees is engaging with previous kinds of these stories, often to Mudbound’s detriment, but by including so many perspectives amongst the two central families, she’s pushing deeper than films like this usually go.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.