Noah Baumbach’s beautifully judged drama about an egoistical father raging against the dying of the light is both funny and profound, while the latest Lego film isn’t much more than a cynical toy advert reconfigured as a standard issue hero’s journey movie
The Meyerowitz Stories (15) ****
The Party (15) ****
The Lego Ninjago Movie (PG) **
Simultaneously released in cinemas and on Netflix, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories feels very much like a spiritual sequel to his earlier masterpiece The Squid and the Whale. Another exquisite comedy-drama built around a dysfunctional New York family, it stars Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz, a pompous and embittered sculptor who, like Jeff Daniels’ failing novelist in the earlier movie, has let his high self-regard blind him to his own failures as a father. His now grown-up children – siblings Danny (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) – are all estranged to various degrees, but they’re united in their disdain for the old man, whose career looms large over their lives even though none of them have followed him into the art world.
He takes that last fact as a personal affront and this, coupled with the ongoing lack of professional respect coming his way, has manifested itself in a kind of chronic egomania that seems to have settled in later years into a curmudgeonly frustration with everything and everyone (at a time when contemporaries are enjoying celebrity-attended retrospectives, he’s clinging to the disputed fact that the Whitney once bought one of his pieces). The psychic scars he’s inflicted on his offspring are plain to see to everyone but him, especially when a perfect storm of misfortune forces a reluctant and prolonged family reunion.
The film’s main focus is on the two father-son stories, as well as the resulting fraternal enmity that continues simmer away between Danny and Matthew. Sandler’s Danny is the most sympathetic character here. Though sweet-natured he has a few anger management issues that are being exacerbated by the recent collapse of his marriage, his ongoing unemployment, his gammy hip and his beloved daughter’s imminent departure for college. Essentially he’s a variant on the sad-sack schlubby loser characters Sandler has played throughout his career, but in this context he once again demonstrates what a subtle screen presence he can be when he works with good collaborators.
Stiller is also very good as the most successful of the three siblings. Mathew is an accountant and wealth manager who’s helping Harold’s latest wife (Emma Thompson) sell the family home to which Danny – who’s temporarily moving back in – feels sentimentally attached. Matthew lives in Los Angeles and his various phone calls back home reveal some cracks in his own marriage. In fact, his anger towards his father may be partly fuelled by his fear that he’ll do to his son what Harold did to him.
None of which sounds all that funny, but Baumbach is a filmmaker finely attuned to the absurdities and neuroses of real life and he deploys disruptive editing techniques here that heighten the comic effect of his characters’ myriad rants and meltdowns. Hoffman’s a joy to watch as well. He’s played father to both Sandler and Stiller in other movies, but never with as much vigour or venom. His irascibility is funny and infuriating – although in truth, also a little exhausting. Where The Squid and the Whale was a tight, perfectly constructed 80 minutes, The Meyerowitz Stories runs to almost two hours, and the result is a film that feels baggier and the story tends to meander. But that’s OK. This is Baumbach grappling with the way life rarely goes to plan and he uses the extra running time and compendium-like structure to take the film in weird and interesting directions, none more so than when Elizabeth Marvel’s wonderfully droll Joan emerges from the shadow of her siblings with the strangest Meyerowitz story of them all.
The Party sees Sally Potter return with an entertainingly caustic farce about politics, idealism and shifting gender roles in modern Britain. Set around a dinner party to celebrate left-wing politician Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) recent promotion to shadow health minister, what follows as her guests arrive has shades of Abigail’s Party and all the harmony of an Edward Albee-scripted get-together as secrets and lies are exposed, drugs are consumed and vol-au-vents burn in the kitchen. Shooting in crisp black-and-white, Potter makes great use of her pressure-cooker setting to pit her characters – despondent husband Timothy Spall, sardonic friend Patricia Clarkson, coked-up banker Cillian Murphy, cliché-spouting life-coach Bruno Ganz, radical feminist Cherry Jones and newly pregnant ex-Master Chef contestant Emily Mortimer – against one another. Filmed in the midst of Brexit, The Party doesn’t directly reference that calamitous event, but beneath all the barbed comments, cutting put-downs and feverish revelations it does expose how quickly old certainties and decades of partnership can be upended when matters of the heart get out of control.
Even factoring in the many creative possibilities of Lego, it still came as a surprise that both The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie were as fun and subversive as they were. Sadly the same can’t be said about The Lego Ninjago Movie. Based on a martial arts-themed range of the famous construction toys, this feigns the same ironic tone as the previous films, but it’s a pretty cynical toy advert reconfigured as a standard issue hero’s journey movie, one replete with trite life lessons that make it about as entertaining as the last Kung Fu Panda film. Dave Franco and Justin Theroux do lively voice work as the gonzo Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker-esque father/son combo working through their familial issues, but the gags are tired and the animation uninspired. ■