Adam Sandler’s core as a performer has always been his self-loathing. In his best comedies, he weaponizes it with humiliating ruthlessness. (In his worst ones, it wafts pathetically off him like the day-after stink of a drunkard.) Now, he’s given the performance of his life in Noah Baumbach’s free-spirited and likable The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and it feels like something momentous and new for the actor. Whereas Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love used Sandler’s existing persona brilliantly to create an extreme and beautifully self-aware version of an Adam Sandler Movie, Baumbach successfully brings Sandler into the real world without ever quite letting him lose his Adam Sandler–ness.
As the title suggests, Meyerowitz is a self-consciously ambling comedy — the short-story-collection-esque title is merely a cute affectation, as the film isn’t adapted from anything — one exploring the relationship between two very different brothers and their oddball father. Sandler is the unemployed, divorced layabout, Ben Stiller the high-powered accountant to the stars, and Dustin Hoffman is their failed-artist father. So, we’ve got Sandler plus Stiller plus Hoffman, and somehow the result is not a comic ham salad; Baumbach and his actors deserve all the credit in the world for keeping the shtickiness to a minimum.
Sandler internalizes his self-loathing as Danny Meyerowitz, a neurotic who has amounted to very little in this world. As Danny tries to raise his precocious college-bound daughter (a wonderful Grace Van Patten) and bond with his judgmental, old-school–New York art-elite dad, Harold, The Meyerowitz Stories offers a compelling look at people caught in the gravitational pull of a world where fame is ever-present but forever relative. Harold is largely a nobody these days, but he knows all sorts of people who are or were big. Plus, he himself has had a couple of successful pieces over the years, which he thinks gives him some currency. Is Harold a failure, or a man of unimpeachable integrity? Since inferiority complexes and superiority complexes usually come bundled together, the answer, even to him, is a little of both.
Anyway, being this guy’s kid was about as fun as you might imagine. While Danny has mostly failed at life, his half-brother Matthew (Stiller) has succeeded aggressively, attempting to shed the shackles of his past by becoming a high-powered money manager. Stiller, too, is excellent playing a bit out of his comfort zone; this is his third film with Baumbach, who understands how to use the star in interesting ways. Elizabeth Marvel also shines as Jean, the third sibling, who has often had to shrink into the background during the alpha struggle between temperamental brothers. Jean is always around, but the fact that the film’s structure is so thoroughly dominated by the two brothers and their father can be bothersome — though it’s also clear that Baumbach is commenting on the way that girls often get ignored in these kinds of families. In the end, the movie hints that she might be the most talented of all of them.
The Meyerowitz Stories doesn’t quite have the drive and stylistic panache of other recent Baumbach efforts, but it makes up for that with sincerity, as well as moments of subtle satirical genius. The director perfectly captures the passive-aggressive and sometimes genuinely aggressive-aggressive back-and-forth between siblings and parents and children, plus the unstated hierarchies of the New York intelligentsia. When Hoffman attends a MOMA event for an old pal who eventually became an art-world big shot, the stew of feelings — entitlement, envy, judgment, regret — that plays across his face and in his words is nearly heartbreaking. That scene also contains one exchange that I have actually witnessed in real life: the pathetic sight of a famous artist walking past a curator in mid-conversation and casually saying, “I’m not talking to you,” thereby guaranteeing that the curator will stop whatever he’s doing and go talk to the artist. This movie is so well-observed, it’s scary.
The Meyerowitz Stories
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Opens October 13, IFC Center
Premieres on Netflix October 13