Neuroses flow thicker than blood through the veins of the clan under analysis in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Noah Baumbach’s rambling, often stingingly amusing look at messy accounts being settled within a disorderly family. Working firmly within the tradition of New York Jewish humor distinctively mined by the likes of Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Herb Gardner, Elaine May and so many others, Baumbach’s film for Netflix is more conventionally conceived than some of his best work but benefits from sterling turns from a wonderful cast, most notably Dustin Hoffman and, no kidding, Adam Sandler.
Screwed-up families have always served as writers’ most common grist for the mill since the Greeks, so if you’re going to mine that load you’d better be pretty good. And that’s more or less where Baumbach’s new effort rates. At first, it looks like it could possibly be even better than that, as the early stretch is dominated by the piece’s most compelling character, Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman), a cranky, quick-witted, thickly gray-bearded sculptor with a permanent chip on his shoulder over not being viewed as the towering genius he firmly believes himself to be.
He certainly hasn’t been a genius as a father. Oldest son Danny (Sandler) comes down to his dad’s apartment in the Village with lovely arts-minded daughter Jean (Grace Van Patten) to see her off to college at Bard, from which Harold has just retired after decades of teaching. A good dad, Danny’s been pretty much useless at anything else, including marriage: Now that their daughter’s leaving home, he and his wife are separating and Danny hopes to stay with his father and aging hippie wife Maureen (Emma Thompson), Harold’s third or fourth spouse, who he now learns are thinking of selling their place.
This is a family in which the members’ multitude of resentments and complaints erupt with the reliability of Old Faithful; Danny has virtually nothing to talk about but his own inadequacies and failures, while Harold doesn’t let a minute go by without reminding anyone within earshot of how unjustly his achievements have been rated. The latter is shortly on display when the old man takes his son to a Museum of Modern Art reception honoring an old rival (Judd Hirsch), precipitating more free-flowing grievances from Harold.
Baumbach seems on very secure territory as he eloquently laces quotidian family talk with irrepressible expressions of true feelings. On the one hand, these people are sharp, alive, unrepressed and can freely express themselves. On the other is the fact that most of these feelings are ugly, hurtful and deeply neurotic. The long and the short of it is that it’s trying and exasperating to be part of this family, which is why it’s so severely splintered.
Act two — and it does feel like a play in this regard — is signaled by the arrival from Los Angeles of Danny’s half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), a high-end finance wiz whose success has clearly done little to ameliorate his neuroses. He and his business partner plan to help Harold sell his home and settle his effects, but of course the family tsuris rises to the top, with plenty of guilt stemming from Matthew’s calculated escape from New York.
When he’s there, Matthew feels like he’s got a lot of making up to do, but the old man never lets him off the hook until he lands in the hospital, where he quickly slips into a coma — whereupon the guilt-trip and resentment dynamic switches to that between Danny and Matthew, with weird doormat sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) swept along for the ride. Sibling rivalry and resentment reach comically withering heights.
Structuring the piece as a self-proclaimed series of “stories” rather than as a solidly built two or three-act drama serves to gradually flatten the action out instead of providing it with a more muscular shape, which slowly takes a toll in the late-going; as a result, the film feels longer than it is, which is also partly due to the similarity of many of the exchanges. Visually, too, a sameness of approach takes the temperature of the piece from a low boil to a low simmer.
But Baumbach has written juicy roles and lots of cranky dialogue, just what actors love to sink their teeth into, which easily explains why he attracted such a crack cast. Hoffman indisputably rules the roost as the irascible genius in his own mind, giving snap and innuendo to his readings that further up the ante provided by his egotistical pronouncements and cutting comments. Right behind, surprisingly enough, is Sandler, who has spent most of his career hiding the fact that he can hold his own and more with the likes of his co-stars here; it’s a legitimately fine and felt presentation of a modern sad sack.
Stiller well conveys his character’s manic desperation to make amends for his calculated desertion of the messy family nest, although his antic manner becomes rather one-note after a while. Marvel makes the sister one odd gal, someone who’s never fit in anywhere, while Van Patten, as the teen who’s both following the family footsteps to Bard but also going her own way, suggests that maybe one member of the family will be able to wriggle out of the nest with her sanity largely intact.
Cast: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Candice Bergen, Adam Driver, Judd Hirsch, Rebecca Miller, Matthew Shear
Director-screenwriter: Noah Baumbach
Producers: Scott Rudin, Noah Baumbach, Lila Yacoub, Eli Bush
Director of photography: Robbie Ryan
Production designer: Gerald Sullivan
Costume designer: Joseph G. Aulisi
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Music: Randy Newman
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Francine Maisler
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)