The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Not rated. Available October 13 on Netflix.
Writer-director Noah Baumbach seemed to be lightening up a bit in his two movies with personal and professional partner Greta Gerwig, who embodied effervescent, sometimes misguided positivity in Frances Ha and Mistress America, but with The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Baumbach returns to more caustic material. There’s still plenty of humor in this dysfunctional family saga, with Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller as brothers who’ve been messed up in different ways by their overbearing, narcissistic father (Dustin Hoffman). Despite having two comedians as his leads, Baumbach keeps things fairly grounded and serious, giving his stars a chance to show off their underrated dramatic talents.
Sandler remains a one-dimensional actor, but Baumbach plays to his strengths by casting him as Danny Meyerowitz, a shuffling, immature (but likeable) man-child who’s never held a real job and is currently without a home after splitting up with his wife. Divided into segments named for various members of the Meyerowitz family, Stories starts by focusing on Danny, as he crashes at his dad’s and sees his precocious teenage daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college. Danny is the accommodating, underachieving son who caters to his dad’s every whim and encourages his career as a sculptor, which never quite took off the way the elder Meyerowitz felt he deserved.
Stiller plays Danny’s younger half-brother Matt, who left the family home in New York City for a high-powered career in LA as a financial advisor. The neurotic, insecure Matt is also a familiar part for Stiller, who’s worked with Baumbach twice before (in Greenberg and While We’re Young) and played a similarly restless middle-aged man in Mike White’s Brad’s Status earlier this year. Even if both characters are recognizable Baumbach types, the writing and performances make them distinctive, as does their relationship with Hoffman’s Harold, who seems oblivious to how his own self-centered behavior has harmed his children (including daughter Jean, played by Elizabeth Marvel, who gets less screen time than her siblings).
With its chapter titles and literary opening sentences, its NYC Jewish intelligentsia setting, its warm visuals (beautifully shot on film) and its jazzy piano score by Randy Newman, Stories is Baumbach’s most Woody Allen-esque movie to date, although it’s wittier and more insightful than the majority of Allen’s movies of the last two decades. The characters are self-absorbed but also sympathetic, emotionally stunted even though they’ve lived lives of relative privilege. After he worked so successfully with Gerwig, it’s a bit disappointing that Baumbach underserves the movie’s female characters, including Marvel’s Jean, Emma Thompson as Harold’s alcoholic fourth wife and Van Patten as aspiring filmmaker Eliza. Even those minor characters get their moments to shine, though, and the cumulative effect of Stories is akin to a rich collection of literary fiction, the “selected” pieces (which contribute to a somewhat disjointed pacing, especially at the end) just a sliver of the overall grand story of the Meyerowitz line.