'The Meyerowitz Stories' Is A Squirm-Inducing Comedy About Family Dysfunction | KERA News

'The Meyerowitz Stories' Is A Squirm-Inducing Comedy About Family Dysfunction

Oct 13, 2017
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. With films like "The Squid And The Whale" and "Margot At The Wedding" among his credits, the writer-director Noah Baumbach is no stranger to squirm-inducing comedies about dysfunctional families. His latest picture in this vein is "The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)," a Netflix original film starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Every once in a while, Adam Sandler shakes off all that puerile idiocy and reminds you what a terrific actor he can be. He went memorably deep and dark years ago in films like "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Funny People," exploring caustic new depths of neurosis and insecurity. By contrast, he's in a wonderfully mellow mood in Noah Baumbach's enjoyable new ensemble comedy "The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected)." Sandler plays Danny Meyerowitz, a middle-aged New Yorker who's newly separated from his wife and about to send his daughter Eliza, played by Grace Van Patten, off to college.

Eliza is an aspiring filmmaker, to the delight of Danny's father, Harold, played by Dustin Hoffman, a sculptor who both bemoans and relishes his status as the only working artist in the family. Harold, whose career has never gotten the respect and attention he thinks it deserves, concedes that his three children once showed flickers of artistic promise. Danny was a talented musician. There's a lovely scene in which he and Eliza play a self-composed piano duet. But he gave it up years ago and became a house husband. His quietly dependable sister Jean, played by Elizabeth Marvel, was once interested in photography but now works an unglamorous job at Xerox. And then there's the youngest Meyerowitz sibling, Matthew, played by Ben Stiller, Harold's son from his second marriage.

While Danny and Jean have stayed close to home, faithfully taking care of their aging, irascible father, their half-brother Matthew lives with his wife and son in Los Angeles, where he works in personal wealth management. His success and independence are a source of pride for Harold but of resentment for Danny, who feels neglected and overshadowed by his little brother. As its title suggests, "The Meyerowitz Stories" is a collection of shaggy, loosely connected episodes that unfold in linear order, each one offering a revealing glimpse into the heart of a lively and fractious New York Jewish family. In the first story, Danny briefly moves in with Harold and his latest wife, Maureen, played by a pleasantly loopy Emma Thompson. In the second story, Matthew briefly comes to New York to meet with a client and takes Harold out to lunch so they can discuss arrangements for getting his affairs in order, which means selling off his house and artwork. The lunch does not go well.

The third story brings all the characters together when Harold is hospitalized with a long-neglected head injury mere days before the opening of a career retrospective that's being mounted at Bard College in his honor. It's an opportunity for Matthew and Danny to catch up on each other's lives. But the competitive tensions and awkward misunderstandings that have long defined their brotherly relationship keep rising to the surface.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)")

ADAM SANDLER: (As Danny) Dad says you started your own company.

BEN STILLER: (As Matthew) Yeah. A couple other guys and me decided to...

SANDLER: (As Danny) How does that work? Do you just tell your boss like, I'm going to start...

STILLER: (As Matthew) Well, I was one of the partners, so I didn't technically have a boss.

SANDLER: (As Danny) Right. No, I understand. So you got a better offer.

STILLER: (As Matthew) No, there were no offers. That's what was so scary. We were creating our own opportunity.

SANDLER: (As Danny) Because you wanted something smaller.

STILLER: (As Matthew) Bigger. Many of the firm's clients came with us.

SANDLER: (As Danny) Which was surprising.

STILLER: (As Matthew) No, we expect it. We can't legally ask clients to come with us, but we trust them...

SANDLER: (As Danny) But they don't have much choice.

STILLER: (As Matthew) It's totally their choice.

SANDLER: (As Danny) No, I know, because you have their money.

STILLER: (As Matthew) Well, their money is with the firm, but their money is in investments.

SANDLER: (As Danny) I understand. My buddy Ptolemy, who lives across the street - or lived across the street...

STILLER: (As Matthew) Dad told me about your (unintelligible).

SANDLER: (As Danny) Ptolemy is like you.

STILLER: (As Matthew) I'm sorry. But also...

SANDLER: (As Danny) He works in arbitrage.

STILLER: (As Matthew) Yeah. That's not what I do.

CHANG: That distant possibility that Harold might not make it provides a natural occasion for years' worth of buried resentments to come to the surface, followed by some tentative stabs at reconciliation. It's all familiar dysfunctional family territory. And Baumbach clearly isn't trying to reinvent the wheel here. He doesn't have to. He has mastered the art of overlapping dialogue - of having his characters talk not so much to each other as at each other, so we can pick up on every note of defensiveness and passive aggression.

His method here is to simply cram his characters into the same room and let his marvelous actors do the rest. As played by Hoffman, the demanding, self-absorbed Harold belongs in the canon of terrifically insufferable movie dads along with Gene Hackman in "The Royal Tenenbaums" and Jeff Daniels in Baumbach's semi-autobiographical drama "The Squid And The Whale." Stiller cuts through Matthew's outer slickness to reveal this prodigal son's deep-seeded daddy issues. And Sandler is simply wonderful as the lovable but long-suffering Danny, his voice rising higher and higher as "The Meyerowitz Stories" escalates toward a cathartic screwball climax.

A final word on Elizabeth Marvel, an excellent character actress who spends much of the movie on the sidelines - Jean is the least developed of the three siblings, which is partly by design. She's the quiet, unassuming stalwart in the family, the one who has arguably suffered the most under Harold's neglect and also the one who complains about it the least. Baumbach has made terrific movies about women in the past. "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America" both come to mind. And while it's hard to begrudge him giving us three characters as richly drawn as the Meyerowitz men are, I can't help but wish he'd given his female characters a bit more attention.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, new research about sleep that might keep you up at night. Matthew Walker, author of "Why We Sleep," tells us why we need eight hours, the alarming consequences of the lack of it and what's going on in the brain when we sleep.

MATTHEW WALKER: During some stages of sleep, the brain is up to 30 percent more active than when we're awake.

BIANCULLI: He'll give us some tips on how to get a good night's rest, too. Hope you can join us.

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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.