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Empathy, Not Judgment, for Complicated Characters

Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman in "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)," left, and Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote in "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," right. (Screen shots via YouTube / YouTube)

Not long ago I went to a press screening of “A Serious Man,” a 2009 black comedy-drama by the Coen Brothers. When it ended I staggered out, overwhelmed by the religiosity and the physics and sheer Jewishness of it all. (Despite a deceptively Irish surname, I am a member of the tribe.)

Lou, a colleague who is Italian-American, asked if I was OK. “Yes,” I replied, wondering aloud if the film’s yiddishkeit was understandable to a Gentile viewer. “I may be Catholic,” said Lou with a patient smile, “but I recognize a Job story when I see one.” We both laughed at the recognition that it’s the most culturally specific stories that can be the most universal.

I thought of this conversation while watching “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” Noah Baumbach’s surprisingly endearing cringe-comedy about a blended family that, shall we say, still has a lot of lumps. While this episodic film, configured like a short-story collection (think J.D. Salinger’s Glass family), is laser-pointer specific, its tensions are universally relatable. And its performances are first-rate.

The Meyerowitz patriarch, Harold (Dustin Hoffman, projecting Old Testament sternness), is a New York sculptor who has had some success, but not enough. Harold speaks without listening and his subject is, almost inevitably, himself. So preoccupied with his artistic legacy is Harold that he thinks little about his emotional bequests to his children.

His three children by two marriages, Danny (Adam Sandler), Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and Matthew (Ben Stiller), are very different products of Harold’s narcissism and neglect. And then there’s Harold’s fourth wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson), a flibbertigibbet and alcoholic, more a leaky life preserver for her spouse than a steadying anchor.

Yes, Adam Sandler is in the movie, but it’s not an “Adam Sandler movie.” He delivers a furiously funny performance as Danny, an unparented man whose life’s work is to be the most imaginative, and present, of fathers to Eliza (Grace Van Patten). In order to be there for his daughter, though, Danny has scuttled his career. His half-brother Matthew, a Hollywood business manager, has become the success that Harold always wanted to be. Their sister, Jean, as deadpan as her brothers are live-wire, is mystifyingly free of their neuroses and compensatory behavior.

Baumbach comes not to judge his characters but to understand them, and his generosity makes the audience suspend judgment. The director’s prior films, especially “The Squid and the Whale” and “Margot at the Wedding,” were prickly, uncomfortable stories of toxic families. This one, while decidedly not warm and fuzzy, finds a moment of clumsy grace in each of the family members.

Arborists say that a sugar diet leeches the toxicity of a tree poisoned at its root. In this movie Baumbach holds out the promise that with a little empathy a family tree poisoned at the root can eventually bear amazing fruit.

(“The Meyerowitz Stories” is playing in theaters and available for streaming on Netflix.)

***
Another object lesson in coming to empathize with, not judge, characters is Angela Robinson’s “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” It’s the incredible (and mostly true) biopic of Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), a Harvard psychology professor, practitioner of polyamory and bondage fetishist, who went on to create the comic character Wonder Woman. (In other words, it’s the origin story behind the comic’s origin story.)

It’s equally the story of Marston’s brilliant wife, Elizabeth Holloway (Rebecca Hall), and his lovely mistress, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the former whose dominance and latter whose submissiveness sexually excites him. Robinson’s film tells a story not always consistent with that of Jill Lepore in her book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman.” Yet Robinson’s sympathetic portrayal of characters who seem incomplete without the other two shows how the trio conjured a Paradise Island of their own in Rye, N.Y. Her movie is as improbable and magical as any edition of the “Wonder Woman” comic.

(“Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is playing in theaters.)

Carrie Rickey
Contributor
In addition to writing film reviews and essays for Truthdig, Carrie Rickey has been a film critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Village Voice and an art critic at Artforum and Art in America. Rickey has…
Carrie Rickey

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