Centered around a bitter patriarch and his three alienated children, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) feels lived-in despite its glaringly mannered dialogue and charmingly eccentric characterizations. After all, there aren’t that many people like bitter also-ran sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), clingy musician turned stay-at-home father Danny (Adam Sandler), depressed control freak Benjamin (Ben Stiller), and Danny and Benjamin’s pushy but kind step-sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel).
The Meyerowitzes are rich oddballs: Danny somehow can afford to not work for long stretches of time; Harold tellingly quibbles about the merits of his colleagues’ work right before he beams proudly about bumping into a celebrity (Sigourney Weaver!); and Harold’s fourth wife (Emma Thompson) secretively combats alcoholism while binging on expensive hummus, and serving rarefied dishes like shark and pigeon. But while these individuals may not talk like the people you know, they obsess, kvetch, and ache in ways that make it seem as if you’ve known them for years.
Segmented into novelistic chapters, The Meyerowitz Stories primarily concerns Harold. Think of him as the elephant in the room that all three of his children—each born from a different mother—must inevitably confront. Harold obsesses over the past, and like a lot of old men, he repeats the same anecdotes and bad jokes. He also cannot help but talk past Danny, Benjamin, and Jean whenever he needs something from them—which is often.
Harold’s children are hardly perfect, often blaming their problems on their dad. Jean, frequently seen skulking in the background of the frame, is the most well-adjusted of the three since she basically accepts her father for who he is. But Benjamin, a high-powered investment manager, has purposefully distanced himself from the man. Now, as Benjamin’s own son grows apart from him due to his failings as a parent and husband, he wants to reconnect with Harold—though he’s reluctant to admit it to himself. Danny, by contrast, doesn’t know how to stop suffering in silence whenever Harold neglects his needs. None of these characters see or need their father in the same way, and that makes them some of Baumbach’s most compelling characters.
Baumbach has given Stiller his best acting showcase in years simply by letting him spike his often overlooked emotional range with nut-rage brio. Marvel also does fine work with Baumbach’s deceptively challenging dialogue; she often has to talk over her co-stars to be heard, and that’s no small feat given that she’s competing with champion scenery-chewers like Sandler and Hoffman. Sandler himself, though, is inconsistent. At times, as he’s dutifully hitting his notes, it seems as if he’s feeling the pressure of having to play the sort of emotionally demanding role he hasn’t had in quite some time. But he’s ultimately believable, and not just in scenes where he’s falling back on familiar, sub-Punch Drunk Love mannerisms, like screaming about parallel parking, or demurring politely when his perceptive teenage daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten), asks him to tell her about his problems. Sandler doesn’t have much range, but he uses his usual man-child tics—especially his coy pout, and his impotent scream—to great effect here.
Sandler and his fellow leads make the film feel like Baumbach’s richest film since The Squid and the Whale. The Meyerowitzes all speak with the wit and observational detail that one might expect from the screenwriter of such whip-smart comedies as Mistress America and Kicking and Screaming. But The Meyerowitz Stories clarifies and revivifies those earlier films’ familiar themes of coping with privilege and inherited familial shortcomings. This isn’t just more of the same from Baumbach, a talented humorist, but a nuanced and highly accomplished collaboration that ranks among his finest to date.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.