Cinema is an art form unlike any other, one that swirls disparate forms of expression—music, sound, writing, performance, photography—into one special medium that’s helped define global pop culture for the last 100 years. Occasionally, that convergence produces something truly unforgettable, something that feels both highly relevant to the specific story being told and to the deeply-held feelings we all share as a society. Noah Baumbach’s new film The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) has such a magical moment: Adam Sandler, yelling furiously at nobody in particular, as he tries to parallel-park his car on a busy Manhattan street.
Sandler, of course, is a master of cinematic yelling. He’s yelled in almost every star vehicle he’s ever brought to the masses, from Billy Madison to The Waterboy to more sensitive efforts like Funny People or Punch-Drunk Love. Long ago, in his salad days as a Saturday Night Live cast member, Sandler figured out that there was just something elementally funny about him vainly yelling into the void. But The Meyerowitz Stories, which debuted on Netflix on Friday, distills that impotent rage into something genuinely affecting, something that really speaks to the specific, lovable failings of Danny Meyerowitz, one of the bedraggled heroes of Baumbach’s new film.
Danny is the son of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor of some renown who has recently retired from his life as an art professor. A musician who never managed to find a career for himself, Danny presents somewhat pathetically—he walks with a limp that he refuses to get checked out, favors cargo pants and lightly stained button-downs, and really has a short fuse when it comes to parking. He’s also obviously a wonderful father to his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), whom he’s sending off to college, and has the kind of inherent shabby charm that Sandler can so uniquely project. He’s a perfect Baumbach protagonist, a collection of complexes and neuroses who somehow never feels overwritten, and who can express years of fatherly neglect simply by yelling over his shoulder as he tries to put his car in reverse.
The Meyerowitz Stories is the latest in this relatively prolific period in Baumbach’s career (he’s directed six films in the last eight years). An American indie darling who made his debut with the wonderful Kicking and Screaming in 1995 and finally struck gold again with The Squid and the Whale in 2005, he’s been best-known recently for his collaborations with the actress and writer Greta Gerwig, who starred in and co-wrote Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015). Those films had a vivacious, buzzy energy to them, while his last solo script While We’re Young (2014) was a little more phlegmatic and seemed to have an axe to grind about pretentious young millennials. Meyerowitz is similarly caustic, but its generational angst is entirely within the dysfunctional title family, and thus a lot easier to grapple with.
As Meyerowitz, Hoffman is perfectly cast, in what might be his best role in 20-odd years. He shambles around projecting a certain faded mystique—though you quickly get the impression that his impact on the art world was minor, he casts a long shadow for his children, all of whom he’s ignored at times, and burdened with lofty expectations at others. Like Baumbach’s other characters, he’s well-shaded—hardly a monster, but difficult to root for, his flaws reflected in the tumult around him, from his frequently tipsy fourth wife Maureen (a delightful Emma Thompson) to the expired orange juice in his fridge.
The first third of The Meyerowitz Stories focuses on Harold and Danny and their attempts to bond after Eliza goes to college; the second brings in Ben Stiller as Matthew, Danny’s more successful half-brother who works as a financial manager to the stars in Los Angeles. Stiller, in recent years, has been the avatar of Baumbach’s frustrations; he’s more muted here, ceding the theatrics to Sandler and building his own grudges to boil much more slowly. But Baumbach has great fun in teasing out the details of Harold’s failings and the resentments of his children, until they come to a head in the final act of the film, centered on a small art show held in Harold’s honor. Lurking on the sidelines throughout is Elizabeth Marvel, who’s drily hilarious as Harold’s third child Jean—though her relegated status within the family has a story purpose, it’s slightly disappointing that she never feels as fleshed-out as her brothers.
The joys of The Meyerowitz Stories are what you’d expect from Baumbach—a light touch with dialogue, a deftness at depicting the hilarious bustle of a verbose family of intellectuals sparring in the kitchen. But for all Sandler’s screaming, and Hoffman’s imperious rambling, the film builds to some quietly tragic moments amid its chaotic comedy of family manners. If you enjoy Baumbach’s work, you know what you’re getting into—but even by his impressive yardstick, The Meyerowitz Stories is an achievement.