‘The Meyerowitz Stories’: Playing normal again, Sandler pulls it off
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If you tasked me with programming an Adam Sandler Film Festival, I would have no problem coming up with a list of titles to fill an entire day and evening — with enough leftovers for a double feature the next morning as well.
Now we can add “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” to the fairly impressive roster of films featuring quality performances from Sandler.
I’m not kidding.
As we all know, Sandler has consistently been on the receiving end of some of the most scathing reviews of the last 25 years — and deservedly so. If it please the court, I introduce as evidence “Little Nicky,” “That’s My Boy,” “Just Go With It,” “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry,” “Grown-Ups” and “Grown-Ups 2,” “The Cobbler,” “Jack & Jill,” “The Ridiculous Six” AND DEAR GOD PLEASE DON’T MAKE ME EVER HAVE TO SIT THROUGH ANY OF THOSE MOVIES EVER AGAIN!
At times Sandler has been so creatively lazy even his wardrobe choices tell us he can hardly be bothered to try. He wanders around in baggy shorts and hoodies and wrinkled T-shirts — a grown man clothed like a 12-year-old boy.
But Sandler’s filmography also includes some truly hilarious turns in star-making farces such as “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore,” fine work in romantic comedies such as “The Wedding Singer” and “50 First Dates,” and powerful performances in substantial fare ranging from “Punch-Drunk Love” to “Reign Over Me” to “Spanglish.”
In the Woody Allen film — sorry, the Noah Baumbach film that feels like an uncanny cover version of a New York-centric Woody Allen film — with the precious, J.D. Salinger-esque title of “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” Sandler gives one of his most authentic performances.
Sandler’s Danny is the classic hapless, sad-sack, middle-aged man who is at his most hilarious (to us) when he’s at his most serious. His entire life can be summed up in a few words:
Underachieving, overlooked disappointment.
Danny is a failed musician and recently divorced stay-at-home dad who has a tight relationship with his bright, creative, wonderful teenage daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten).
Before Eliza goes off to Bard, where she will study filmmaking, Danny takes her to visit his father Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a newly retired college professor and a sculptor of minor renown, and Harold’s fourth wife, the brassy and boozy Maureen (Emma Thompson).
Harold has the intellect and the quick-witted personality to command a room, but he’s also an insufferable, self-pitying boor, forever prattling on about how his work deserved a wider audience. Danny has an almost pathological need for his father’s approval — but Harold is too busy singing his own praises, casually insulting Danny or boasting about the accomplishments of Danny’s younger half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller), to even notice.
Oh, and there’s a third grown sibling: Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who has somehow managed to carve out a life even sadder and more pathetic than Danny’s.
Yes, the Meyerowitz family has drained any traces of “fun” out of “dysfunctional.”
Writer-director Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Frances Ha”) is a skilled wordsmith and keen observer of multi-generational family dynamics, and how the son becomes the father even as the son has vowed with every inch of his DNA that he will never be like his father. Harold is the kind of guy who will obsess over the smallest perceived social slight and will go out of his way to escalate a confrontation, and his sons are forever telling him to let things go — and yet they’re both just as bad as their father.
Resentment and envy and anger are the cornerstones of the Meyerowitz family dynamic.
Danny resents Matthew’s favored-son relationship with their father. Harold envies his far more successful colleague (Judd Hirsch). Matthew is seething with rage at Harold because even though Matthew has become a professional success in California, within minutes of Matthew arriving in New York, his father can still manipulate him and make him feel like a failure. Jean just wishes SOMEBODY would notice her.
They’re a smart and sophisticated and relatively privileged bunch, but they’re miserable and ridiculous, which makes for some poignant insights and some sharp comedy. We enjoy the Meyerowitz clan, even as we praise the heavens we’re not like them and we don’t live next door to any of ’em.
Netflix presents a film written and directed by Noah Baumbach. No MPAA rating. Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and on demand.