‘The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)’ Review: Adam Sandler Is Genuinely Fantastic in Noah Baumbach’s Latest
Noah Baumbach’s latest film opens with a scene we’ve seen dozens of times: Adam Sandler losing his temper. Think of any Sandler movie and you’ll find a moment with the actor screaming and hurling profanities in someone’s face (here’s a compilation for your
enjoyment torture). Though a Sandler rage fit is often intended to be humorous (and hey, sometimes it is), after decades of repetition, it’s devolved into a meaningless cliché. Or it was, until Sandler fell back into the hands of a good director who knew just where and how to orient that anger. Paul Thomas Anderson did it marvelously in Punch-Drunk Love, and in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) Baumbach finds the sadness at the heart of Sandler’s repressed fury in a story about a trio of adult siblings confronting their past.
Broken up into character-based chapters, the film, which screened at the New York Film Festival and arrives on Netflix this week, begins with Sandler’s Danny circling a Manhattan block looking for parking with his teenage daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten). When he comes up dry, Sandler erupts into a storm of expletives. It’s hilarious and familiar, but watching it doesn’t make you feel like you’re being verbally assaulted by another rash, emotionally unstable Sandler character. His Danny Meyerowitz is less a man-child and more a man weighed down by sadness and neglect. The same goes for the other adult Meyerowitz children, Danny’s sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and their half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), as all three attempt to unburden themselves of resentment towards their artist father and one another.
Dustin Hoffman, in a wonderful performance brimming with cranky irritability, plays Harold Meyerowitz, a sculpture artist who never got quite as famous as he thinks he deserved. He’s the type of emotionally vacant father who put his work before his family then denys it, and who frequently laments not having an “artistic heir.” Harold doesn’t get his own chapter, but we get to know him through the stories of his children who are forced back together after he suddenly falls ill.
After Danny’s introduction we meet the youngest sibling, Matthew, a financial advisor to A-list celebrities (one played in a brief but delightful cameo by an antsy Adam Driver). Though Harold dotes on Matthew, he also holds him to a higher standard than his other children. Baumbach is most interested in exploring the fraught relationship between Matthew and Harold, but as we get to know Danny and Jean, his older children who were shut out and ignored once he met his second wife (Candice Bergen), they’re clearly the more fascinating character studies.
Danny’s the most lost of the trio; his daughter, who’s also his best friend, has gone off to college, he’s getting a divorce, and as a former pianist and music teacher who quit to be a stay-at-home dad, his future is looking hollow and lonely. He’s a big ol’ sad dad, but Sandler’s performance is never a piteous one and Danny is his most moving and likable character since Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love. He brings the film its most sincere emotional moments, whether he’s in a slapping fight with Stiller, screaming in frustration, or crying at his father’s gallery opening – again, that same old Sandler rage is grounded in something more human and relatable here, rather than childish and pathetic.
And then there’s quiet Jean, the film’s most undervalued character who’s given so little backstory I can’t even remember what her occupation is – it says a lot that her chapter title is introduced as a parenthetical and in smaller sized font than the others. But Marvel turns Jean’s screentime into a delicately poignant performance that emphasizes body language over dialogue.
The Meyerowitz Stories might sound like a bummer, but it’s a total comedic delight thanks to Baumbach’s rapid, garrulous writing style. In numerous scenes the Meyerowitzs constantly talk over and around one another; watching them feels like sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table of a family of New York intellectuals who can’t stand each other but refuse to admit it. The feeling that no one gets a chance to be heard in this family is echoed in the editing – the first two thirds of the movie are full of sudden jarring cuts that interrupt characters mid-sentence, and they each accentuate the film’s sharp sense of humor.
Multiple scenes had me laughing out loud, but the comedic scene-stealer is Emma Thompson as Harold’s hippie intellectual wife Maureen. Often intoxicated (Harold insists she’s three months sober), Maureen slinks into rooms to announce she’s made shark stew for dinner, or to share a random anecdote about her “baby-faced but sinewy old lover, Willem Dafoe.” It’s the type of performance that constantly runs the risk of becoming too kooky, but Thompson nails it perfectly.
Dysfunctional relationships and bickering families are nothing new, but the raw emotion here elevates The Meyerowitz Stories above Baumbach’s previous work. It may slight some of its more compelling character relationships, but it’s still a bittersweet delight. Most impressively, Baumbach finds a way to turn a comedian’s obnoxious gimmick into his secret weapon. It’s almost depressing to think of all the great dramatic Sandler performances we could’ve had all these years. If Netflix gives us one Meyerowitz-level performance for every bad Sandler movie, then I guess that four-picture deal wasn’t a total loss.
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