The Magnificent Meyersons is a sweet and compelling movie about family and the love and loss therein. As a result, the style feels like something from the 90s indie scene. Compared to the current landscape, it feels almost quaint. Still, I liked it and soon found myself ensconced in the movie’s laid-back but emotionally potent story.
Written and directed by Evan Oppenheimer, The Magnificent Meyersons is more theatrical than most modern movies. Meaning there’s no actual plot per se, but there is a story, but the film spends most of its time with characters who are either coming or going to one place or another. Oppenheimer’s dialogue strains the ear at times, but all is forgiven once he hits his stride.
First, we meet Daphne (Jackie Burns), the oldest daughter, with her husband Alan (Greg Keller), who comes off as cliche and outdated. Daphne is mad at her husband because she dreamed about him cheating on her with another man. This type of dialogue exchange should have died out long ago, as few if any woman has ever been angry at their husband because of a dream they had. But, unfortunately, it is an issue that exists solely in movies.
Where that conversation goes, however, is almost interesting. Except, here again, Oppenheimer stumbles. The dialogue concerns abortion, and the words Daphne and Alan use feel more like well-worn talking points from the abortion debate rather than an honest conversation between two people. It’s a pity because, despite the staid dialogue, Burns and Keller have great chemistry and tell us so much about each character just by the pauses they take and looks they give.
Then there’s Roland (Ian Kahn), the oldest son, who ponders about the failures of the human race to his co-worker Percy (Terrence Gray). Percy seems to have to come to peace with his lot in life as it looks like Roland is the type who hogs the conversation. Their conversation is slightly better than Daphne’s and Alan’s, but what they are saying is hardly the point.
Oppenheimer is setting up who these characters are by letting us observe them during the mundane aspects of their lives. It’s not the conversations we are meant to pay attention to, but the neurosis and personalities. For example, Daphne is unsure and scared of losing love, whereas Roland feels the world’s weight on his shoulders and fears losing his daughter.
Soon we will meet Daniel (Daniel Eric Gold), who is studying to be a rabbi, and Susie (Shoshannah Stern), the youngest deaf daughter who is starting a real-estate agency. Terri (Kate Mulgrew), their mother, is an Oncologist who spends time with Celeste (Baraba Barrie), the Meyerson matriarch. Daniel spills his insecurities about his faith and responsibility to the community to Father Joe (Neal Huff) while Terri and Celeste confess to each other personal fears of aging and growing cold-hearted.
The Magnificent Meyersons has a lot going for it, mainly Mulgrew, Barrie, and Richard Kind. Kind plays Morty, the father who left. Why Morty left is explored in flashbacks. If handled poorly, flashbacks can be grating, but Oppenheimer uses them wisely and to good effect. If anything, they and the movie remind us how much I’ve missed Richard Kind’s voice and face.
But about halfway through the film, something happens, and to be frank, I don’t know why. The characters’ conversations regarding the incident could have been had without it, including the dialogue between Susie and her deaf girlfriend Tammy (Lauren Ridloff).
The biggest surprise isn’t supernatural but is somehow more world-shaking and involves Kind’s Morty. Throughout the film, we begin to see a portrait of Morty through his children’s eyes, a loving father who seems to be struggling with anxiety and depression. Kind in these scenes is remarkable, especially considering each scene is with a child of a different age. He calibrates his responses to their questions based on their understanding of the world.
I don’t know, maybe it’s living in the modern world, but I find the big spectacle stuff okay, but I am moved to great tears by things like The Magnificent Meyersons. Of course, I cry at the big stuff too, but smaller movies tend to hit me harder-if only because they attempt to grapple with the complex emotions instead of brushing over them lightly.
It also helps that Oppenheimer images in one of my favorite things a movie can do: have characters tackle theological issues and philosophical debates without resorting to making their characters sound like blocks of text. Instead, they dissect them the way real people do, inelegantly and clumsily. Often they try and couch it as hypothetical or make it sound like they were having a thought when in reality, they are close to crying from the overwhelming largess of it all.
Perhaps that is what Oppenheimer is going for by bringing in the incident halfway through the movie. After all, like climate change, a worldwide pandemic, or a coup, it makes us pause and re-evaluate what we think and feel. But then we have to catch the 217 to Sunset and Vermont for work, and we must push back those questions for another day.
Each scene is essentially a pair of characters conversing with one another until the end, when they all gather to hear Daniel’s secret. A secret, I might add, that shocked me, even though looking back, I should have seen it coming a mile away. Either way, it works, though I wish we spent more time with the characters dealing with the fall out of Daniel’s revelation.
I would have especially loved to spend more time with Susie and Tammy. Sadly, deaf characters are rare in movies not about deafness, never mind, queer deaf characters, and queer deaf characters of color. Let alone getting two deaf actresses to play deaf characters.
Stern’s and Ridloff’s chemistry and relationship are endearing. They have a tenderness to them, and I would have loved to see more of them throughout the movie. The fact that they exist in this movie at all for no reason other than because Oppenheimer wanted to tell a story about people is in of itself a minor miracle even in 2021.
But to also have scenes between Mulgrew and Barrie is an embarrassment of riches. They have a way of talking and walking with one another that seems as if they’ve known each other for years. Of course, it fits considering their mother and daughter, but there’s an ease in how they talk with one another. They are both blunt and quick to forgive, life is short, and they have lived far too much to hold grudges against the other.
There’s not a bad performance in the bunch. Even in the beginning, when Oppenehiemer feels like he’s still trying to find his footing. His actors do a good enough job creating an inner world that we somehow buy them even if we don’t believe what they’re saying.
The Magnificent Meyersons is one of those movies where the pauses sometimes say more than the dialogue. Though do not misunderstand my earlier criticism, for as much as I found the early scenes somewhat grating, the conversation flows like a free-flowing stream as the movie goes on. There’s an almost natural rhythm to how the current of Oppenheimer’s words pours out of his characters. He allows his characters to take a breath and consider their words and the world around them.
It helps that Oppenheimer and his cinematographer Derek McKane keep The Magnificent Meyersons from ever feeling like a series of over-the-shoulder shots. Of course, there are moments with Daniel during the magic hour, and those are lush and gorgeous. But the real feat is they never make The Magnificent Meyersons visually dull.
Evan Wood’s editing helps in that he keeps the scenes moving at a brisk pace. But McKane, Wood, and Oppenheimer pull off what most people assume is easy. The film looks good without ever calling attention to itself or indulging in any stylistic pretensions purely for the sake of because they can. However, the film does have style. Take, for example, how we see a film strip flickering as we transition to a flashback.
In other words, the movie looks good without ever trying to make you aware of it. We live in an era where studio films often look as if someone forgot to turn on the overhead lights. So it’s nice to see someone still cares.
The Magnificent Meyersons struck a chord with me. Perhaps because, much like Simon Stone’s The Dig from earlier this year, it’s a film about not just the past; but what the past means to us now- and for the future. We live in unprecedented times, though it may be more precedented than we’re comfortable with. Either way, it is a time for thoughtful considerations of who we are, how we love, and what that means going forward. Oppenheimer isn’t asking any grand question, but in his small intimate exploration of the pain and joys we cause one another, he has stumbled upon something all too timely.
Learn where you can catch the film at Argot Pictures.
Image and preview copy courtesy of Argot Pictures
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