Director: Noah Baumbach
Writer: Noah Baumbach
Dustin Hoffman delivers a truly fantastic turn in Noah Baumbach’s latest riot, and despite the constant suffering of all the characters involved, it is darkly funny in more ways than one. This dysfunction within a family taken to extremes, and it all revolves around Hoffman.
He is the centre character of the story as an old, grizzled and bitter sculptor who is still looking for recognition for his work, especially after a contemporary ‘makes it’. Harold is a brilliantly written character, arrogant and ignorant to any of his faults. The way he treats his children is tragically funny, as most conversations are decidedly non-two-way. He’ll answer an important question with a comment on the baseball game on TV. These disconnected type of conversations aren’t limited to Harold though; it seems it is a family trait as they talk over each other and fail to listen constantly.
And this is where the film focuses: what Harold’s bizarre personality has done to his three children. Not to mention his new wife, his fourth (though only his third, technically, according to Harold).
Adam Sandler turns in a performance somewhat reminiscent of Punch Drunk Love, in terms of quality. He plays the doofus well, but his character is very well written, and he has some great dialogue to work with. Everyone involved does..
Danny feels he should hate his father for how he was raised, yet he stands by him. He hasn’t had a job for a long time as a stay-at-home type of father, and to the disappointment of his artistic father, had given up on music at an undefined early age. Sandler is brilliant throughout, whether swearing profusely at traffic or on screen with his half-brother– emphasis on the word half– Matthew (an impressive Ben Stiller).
Danny’s daughter seems to be the only art-inclined member of the family, studying film at the college Harold once taught at. Her films are…. Unique, to say the least, proving more bizarre moments as her family reacts politely.
Unlike Danny’s daughter, Matthew also hasn’t gone down the artistic route, a choice he has never feel comfortable with given his father’s bohemian inclinations. His father’s comments on his work are searing, yet are never fully-fledged insults. It is the passive-aggression that stings. Matthew feels entitled because despite his father’s best attempts, he feels he has outrun him, and is a successful businessman. But he knows that Harold doesn’t respect what he does.The core issue that Harold have is that his children aren’t following his passion as an artist, which is what Harold wants. Hence his disappointment in Danny giving up piano, and the path Danny has chosen.
Put simply, Harold is a selfish prick. He is never wrong and some of his outbursts at the smallest hint of a subtle insult are memorable. Hoffman is certainly in award territory here as an old man who won’t let go of making it big. Even when he is offered a show for his work, because it is a group showing with other artists, he takes this as a slap in the face. His selfishness is always consistent and he simply cannot accept that he does have his own solo show..
His daughter is Lena, who has the smallest role of the three but has one very powerful scene. Sharing the same mother as Danny, she too feels that she needs to be there for her father despite feeling neglected as a child, much like Danny. Her performance is subtle but is a constant presence sandwiched between Danny and Matthew’s differences.
Harold’s new wife, supposedly six weeks sober, is also brilliant played by Emma Thompson. The scenes in which she cooks such meals as shark are again sadly hilarious as it is obvious she is wasted and could barely make a sandwich.
Where the film shifts gears is when it gets even more interesting. Painting Harold as the asshole he is, the film could easily have gone down the path of redeeming him, both to the audience but more importantly to his children. Thankfully the film doesn’t do this at all and we are treated to a fantastic final act.
Perhaps the best aspect of the film is the depiction of both negative and positive family dynamics, and how they can change in a second or become the catalyst for a long held grudge. Stiller and Sandler share excellent chemistry and demonstrate this many times, usually with amusing results. But Hoffman steals the show, inhabiting his character without hesitation and his self tendencies never become boring. He is a very interesting father. Perhaps the only flaw I could level at this one is that the laughs slightly lose their effect in the second half.
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