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The Meyerowitz Stories is an excruciating watch if you aspire to make great art

Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories.
Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in The Meyerowitz Stories. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/AP

‘If he isn’t a great artist, that means he was just a prick.” That contribution to the art versus morality conversation is delivered ungoofily by Adam Sandler, playing Danny Meyerowitz in Noam Baumbach’s Netflix film The Meyerowitz Stories. The great artist who is otherwise just a prick is Danny’s father, Harold, played by Dustin Hoffman with considerable insight into just what a prick an artist can be. A prick not only unto others, but unto himself: every appraisal of his work either the promise of recognition or an insult; every encounter an occasion for a tiny triumph or an unbearable repudiation; every mention of his work an impossible excitation or an injury to skin so thin, you could blow bruises on it.

The Meyerowitz Stories is an excruciating watch for anyone who aspires to make great art, whether they succeed or not. There is a little or a lot of him in every artist. Don’t ask me why; it must have something to do with the will to creative exposure: the strange, contradictory impulse of the over-sensitive to offer themselves up on the altar of judgment to people for whom they have no regard.

Compare and contrast the film Maudie, which is also about an artist. Maudie recounts the real-life romance between an awkward and arthritic painter and an ill-tempered recluse who has never knowingly looked at a painting in his life. This film also has its excruciations, but they relate more to the gaucheries of love than to aesthetic ambition.

In fact, no two artists could be more different. Harold fabricates sterile, abstract sculptures that reek of secondhand modernist self-consciousness. It might be a tragedy for him that he can’t get a major exhibition, but he doesn’t deserve one, the prick. Maudie (Sally Hawkins, wonderfully beguiling as the Canadian folk-artist Maud Lewis) is as far removed from high-art pretensions as it is possible for an artist to be. “The whole of life, already framed, right there,” she says, looking out of a window at her inspiration: pussy cats, leaping Bambis, red cottages in green fields.

Given the choice, I’d rather have a Maudie on my wall than a Harold on my desk. Her work might be simplistic – barely art at all, if you’re a curator at Tate Modern – but at least it is not the airless, self-important thing of blighted dreams that Harold’s is. If that’s an abrogation of critical seriousness, receive it as my parting gift on this final page of my stint as stand-in diarist. I don’t think Clive James, in whose immense shadow I have written these last six months, would take my preference amiss.

This article titled "The Meyerowitz Stories is an excruciating watch if you aspire to make great art" was written by Howard Jacobson, for The Guardian on Saturday 13 January 2018 07.59am

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