A noticeable improvement over Adam Sandler’s previous three Netflix originals — in much the same way that a glass of Manischewitz is a noticeable improvement over drinking one of those ominous puddles that forms in the groove of a New York City subway seat — “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” isn’t the wittiest or most exciting movie that Noah Baumbach has ever made, but it might just be the most humane.
Too familiar to stand out from Baumbach’s career, but too funny and textured and true to not be one of its highlights, “The Meyerowitz Stories” harkens back to the more savage and sprawling comedies that Baumbach made before he teamed up with Greta Gerwig (whose ebullient influence is noticeably absent from this material, if not always missing from it). Still, this even-handed, mutually destructively, and inextricably Jewish-American family saga marks a major departure for Baumbach in one crucial respect: While all of his films have a cutting sense of humor, this is the first that would rather tend to its wounds than watch them bleed.
Much less disjointed than its silly title might suggest, “The Meyerowitz Stories” drops us right into the middle of its eponymous clan, the members of which are neither new nor selected. Danny (Sandler) is the first one we meet. A self-identified failure with a bum leg, a broken marriage, and a beautiful daughter (“Tramps” breakout Grace Van Patten) who’s about to abandon him for her freshman year at Bard, Danny is the living emblem of a family that’s let itself fall apart. The hilarious opening scene tells us everything we need to know about him: Trying — and failing — to find a parking space in the East Village, Danny is consumed by the rage that’s burbled beneath all of Sandler’s performances, be they Baumbach or “Billy Madison.”
“I’m not fitting!” he shouts at the curb, the line typical of a movie in which characters self-identify more reflexively than Pokémon but never manage to hear themselves speak.
Danny is the black sheep of the family, and therefore the anchor of the film about them, but Baumbach soon introduces us to the rest of relatives. It quickly starts to seem as though the Meyerowitz family tree may have sprouted from an acorn that fell from “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Sitting at the top, on a lumpy throne he sculpted for himself, is Harold (Dustin Hoffman). Nearly as mediocre an artist as is a father, Harold seems too self-interested to notice that resentment defines all of his most important relationships, or that the deed for his apartment is the only thing that’s holding his scattered brood together.
Now with his fourth wife (a fitfully amusing alcoholic played by Emma Thompson) and the white standard poodle he got for her (and then named after “Stroszek” star Bruno S.), Harold courses with the anger he passed down to his kids, and defaults to bitterness at his friends’ successes. When an old colleague hosts a cocktail party for his MoMA show, Harold shows up in a tux, brags about the briefest possible encounter with Sigourney Weaver, and kvetches to Danny all the way home.
While there’s a sense that Hoffman could do this kind of thing in his sleep, there’s a masterful specificity to his performance — you can see it in the sad little shuffle he does when he tries to run (like it ever matters where Harold is going or how fast he gets there), and even in the way his unwashed gray hair clumps together when he’s hospitalized for the head injury that brings his kids together and defines the second half of the film.
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