In The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Noah Baumbach returns with enjoyable tale of family dysfunction and reaching maturity.   

A certain irony is obvious when looking at Adam Sandler’s filmography, showing a genuine diversity in his choice of roles. In addition to The Meyerowitz Stories in 2017, next year, contrastingly, will see the release of Hotel Transylvania 3, for which he contributes as a voice actor. No one can begrudge his success, but it’s probably fair to say that he wouldn’t immediately leap to anyone’s mind when casting for a indie-comedy-drama concerning a dysfunctional family’s crisis, the titular Meyerowitz’s, when their elderly father Harold (Dustin Hoffman) falls seriously ill. Kudos to Sandler for leaving his comfort zone, but also to writer/director Baumbach for having the mettle and foresight to cast him in the first place.

Family relationships and dynamics are a well-trodden track for Baumbach. Discussed heavily in The Squid and the Whale, which sees two parents divorcing and the impact it has on their children, the theme flares up again in this film, but amplified to greater extremes. Wes Anderson is frequent collaborator of Baumbach’s and the family Meyerowitz has definite similarities to the Tenenbaums, from Anderson’s previous picture, The Royal Tenenbaums, almost as if they could share the same cinematic universe. The children, Matthew (Ben Stiller) Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) and Danny (Adam Sandler) all flock to their father in his hour of need, evoking Tenenbaums significantly. This influence is also felt in the patriarch of the family; Hoffman’s Harold is a delight; narcissistic, cantankerous and casually dismissive, almost as if the modern technique of “negging“ was invented for his own use. Instead of using it in a romantic sense, he offhandedly utilises it to grind down his children’s self –esteem, all in an attempt make himself feel better about his own faded, minor glories as an art sculptor. He even advertently sets the children at each other’s throats, an almost Machiavellian schemer in corduroy and cardigans.

The influence of Harold’s parenting hangs over the story. All three children are totally devoid of any maturity, particularly when they share scenes together.  Individually, they are successful in their own ways; be it Danny with his heartwarming relationship with his daughter Eliza (played with assuredness by newcomer Grace Van Patten) or Matthew finding fortune as an accountant, but throw them into a testing situation and they regress to infantile bickering. Baumbach’s script is strong in these situations, and although they are completely incapable of confronting the fact their father may die, it is the evolution in the relationships with each other that forges much stronger bonds. The supporting cast is excellent, with amusing cameos from Adam Driver and Sigourney Weaver in particular. Emma Thompson, as Harold’s current and fourth wife, is wavy and floating yet aloof, a role she is clearly relishing yet overplaying just a touch.

Often choosing to shoot in Brooklyn and the New York area, Baumbach gives a sepia style wash to the proceedings. The look is very retro, sunlight slanting into rustic 70’s-chic living rooms in uptown houses. Often angry outbursts, and there are many, are accompanied by abrupt cuts, almost stating that a red mist has descended and the characters have lost control of their emotions. Randy Newman’s twinkling piano score and original songs give levity to the proceedings, including a genuinely moving piece played by Danny and Eliza, reflecting the trepidation he feels about her imminent move to college.

Hoffman is one of the standouts about the film and, from a story point of view, taking him out of the action by confining him to a hospital bed is probably a necessary move but we are missing his loss. The pacing can be ponderous at times, with the middle act dragging quite a bit, but overall these are minor points of contention. Jean, the middle daughter played with quiet grace by Marvel, is sidelined a tad in the presence of Stiller and Sandler which is a great shame, but who’s to say that this isn’t a reflection of how Harold perceives her?

Overall, the strength is in the performances. Coupled with the aforementioned Hoffman, Stiller is a delight. Seeking to disassociate himself from his batshit family and a desire to better his father (as revealed in a heated exchange) by becoming more prosperous, he acknowledges his feelings in an emotive sequence when presenting one of his father’s sculptures, utterly overwhelmed by his regret. Sandler is genuinely excellent. He delivers a touching and layered performance; a neurotic in the Jack Lemmon mold wrapped up in his own insecurities, resentful of his fathers pressure and expectation. It would take a hard soul not to feel for Danny; desperately seeking approval from a hard-nosed and self-absorbed Harold, with this anger towards his dad expressed with bursts of bubbling rage. To put it mildly, Sandler would be welcomed back with open arms by the indie scene if there isn’t a Hotel Transylvania 4 in the works; such is the understated brilliance of his performance in this Netflix original delight.

★★★☆☆