The title is a tip-off to the literary ambitions of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s semi-dark Netflix comedy, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). It gives off the faint bookish whiff of a J.D. Salinger short story collection. And what unspools over the next comedically caustic two hours does as well. This is a New York-set fable about a dysfunctional, artsy family and its discontents that are aimed at the same audience who appreciated previous Baumbach films such as The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. It’s smart, relatable, laughter-through-psychic pain entertainment that happens to be elevated by a handful of wonderful performances even if it, at times, feels like a lesser version of The Royal Tenenbaums — another urbane tale about an oblivious, difficult, self-centered patriarch and the lingering damage he’s done to his three neurotic, now-grown children.
The Meyerowitz Stories works in large part due to the actor playing that patriarch, Dustin Hoffman. With his leonine, snow-white beard, touchy narcissism, and blind disregard for the feelings of his kids (or anyone else, for that matter), Hoffman looks like a cross between Santa Claus and a late-period Sterling Hayden. He’s fantastic. Harold Meyerowitz is easily the actor’s juiciest role in years and he seems to know it, tearing into each barbed, backhanded insult like a true master in the dark art of undermining. Harold’s offspring are played by Adam Sandler (his best performance since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love – arguably his only performance since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love), Ben Stiller (acing the kind of apoplectic, Type-A role he’s played many times before, including The Royal Tenenbaums), and Elizabeth Marvel (deadpan perfection hiding behind a long, lank hairdo that matches her wallflower personality to a tee).
Baumbach parcels out the story of this strained family in chapters. The first kicks off with Sandler’s Danny and his teenage, college-bound daughter (Grace Van Patten) hunting for a parking space in Manhattan. It’s a killer opening, not just because it happens to be dead-on in its frustrating accuracy, but also because it allows the hangdog Sandler to go from mild fatherly banter to profanity-spewing road rage mode in a flash. Soon, we meet Hoffman’s Harold, a retired sculptor who’s still a legend in his own mind (he talks and talks, but never listens), and his third (or is it fourth?) wife Maureen (Emma Thompson), a blowsy drunk in a billowy muumuu. Stiller’s Matthew shows up in chapter two — a Los Angeles financial advisor who happens to be the favorite son. We know this not only because Hoffman’s Harold comes out and says this to Sandler’s Danny, but also because he receives the least of Harold’s passive-aggressive insults (although there’s still plenty). Marvel’s dutiful Jean is more or less invisible to everyone, which is pretty much how she seems to like it.
The Meyerowitz children all feel, in one way or another, like disappointments to their easily slighted, aging-lion father. And while that might not sound like much fun to sit through, Baumbach’s film is relatable and loaded with enough knowing laughs that it tugs at you in disarming ways. Still, apart from Hoffman and Sandler’s exceptional, lived-in performances, the movie’s familiarity prevents it from being great in the way The Squid and the Whale was. Parents can be well-meaning monsters. Their children can be resentful, scarred victims. And it’s never too late for forgiveness — or at least a resigned sort of belated truce. There can be an undeniable grace in all of that. After all, these are timeless themes. They’re well-told in The Meyerowitz Stories, but they’ve also been told many times before by others, including Baumbach himself. B