Writer/director Noah Baumbach has constructed a strong ensemble piece of family drama with an all-star cast perfectly aged for this type of story. Sandler plays Danny Meyerowitz, an uneasy father helping his daughter Eliza off to college. He’s not worried about her leaving the nest. Quite the opposite, in fact. He applauds her odd major of surrealist filmmaking and is more than fine with her cutting a phone call short to go to a concert with her friends. What he’s worried about is ending up like his father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), an aged and retired sculptor. Harold thinks of himself so esteemed for his work, but his children don’t have as fond memories of their father. This includes Danny’s half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller), trying to distance himself from dad and arguments that often spring forth in their conversations. Other members of the dysfunctional family include Harold’s dead-pan daughter Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), Harold’s prodding hippie of a current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) and Matthew’s talkative mother Candice (Candice Bergen). Did I mention the top-form Judd Hirsch as L.J. Shapiro, Harold’s rival in art?
Baumbach’s script treats these characters are deeply flawed, but also very human. There’s no question that Harold is a bad father as the movie peels back the charming exterior that hides his darker side. His children are in such a fearful state to avoid being like him that they’re terrified of the direction in their lives. Watch the opening introduction of Sandler’s character as he grows increasingly angry with trying to find a parking spot, but calms down a little with his daughter over a song on the radio. Their relationship is sweet and one mutual respect and love, something Danny seems so petrified of shattering that he tries to push himself away from his daughter to live her own life.
While Danny connects with his dad on a more personal level, Matthew is mostly about business with the family. He’s not as artsy or creative, favoring the comfier and more powerful job of a financial planner. He wants to sell dad’s house, but Danny has an emotional attachment to it and despises Matthew for leaving behind his family in New York to start a life with his wife and kid elsewhere. This leads to Matthew and Danny having a heated exchange that will progress to such a degree that they will start fighting each other like bickering brothers.
Harold has a small exhibit coming up at an art museum for his sculpting but it’s an event that comes with a bitterness towards his rival of Shapiro and brings about festering distaste of the past from his children. Hoffman’s performance manages to be both biting and hilarious with the old man coming as the kindly old man that doesn’t think as much about others. His bantering over a lunch with Matthew soon turns so chaotic with his shifting of conversation that he makes a big deal out of wine at the table or believing a customer stole his wallet. Even after he goes through a long surgery that has left him a mostly immobile old man, he still finds himself oblivious to the concerns of others, talking more about what’s on Turner Classic Movies than what do with his family.
Every scene has some amazing moments of detailed acting for actors who seem to have been waiting for a script like this for many years. Sandler has always been the perfect dad-like figure but shines brightly in a role that feels more true and sweet than the typical overbearing parent. Stiller brings that almost neurotic outsider approach of being too smart for the room but doesn’t come off as an unlikable jerk as the film doesn’t allow him to sink to that level. These characters get their own moments to shine in a film the divides up certain character arcs, or chapters, later letting them converge and clash with personality and emotional plights. I also dug how Baumbach finds just the right moment to end a scene, cutting off the dialogue just before it becomes too predictable or meandering. He’ll later ditch this form of transitioning with fades to slow down the picture as it nears the finish line.
Calling The Meyerowitz Stories a film about a dysfunctional family is accurate but that label almost paints a negative connotation of all the brilliance the film has to offer. There are laughs to be had, but they never come as easy or simple bits, always erupting from some progressively brilliant dialogue or uncomfortable situations. There are tragedies but they are never treated like strict melodrama, favoring a more off-kilter tone in how the family moves forward. A great example is when Danny and Matthew discover something horrible their father did to their sister but can’t do anything to him as dad is in a coma. The avenue they find to vent is in breaking Harold’s car with golf clubs, but it doesn’t come off as sadistically satisfying revenge, merely a band-aid on bigger wounds. A lesser film would turn the brothers into cackling frat boys that take mean delight in their destructive revenge, but those days are long past for the likes of Sandler and Stiller (or they should be, at least). Here is a film that treats them, and the rest of the cast, as mature and complicated adults, weathering their dysfunctions and coming to terms with themselves. It’s a phenomenal film and the first evidence we’ve had in years that Adam Sandler’s acting talents are there, dormant though they’ve been.