'The Meyerowitz Stories' review: Adam Sandler gets serious

Thursday, 12 October 2017, 04:42:53 PM. A new Noah Baumbach movie focuses on another terrible father, played wonderfully by Dustin Hoffman

Every few years, Adam Sandler gets ashamed of himself and works with a good director.

That's my guess, anyway. How else to explain his roles in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch Drunk Love," James L. Brooks "Spanglish," Judd Apatow's "Funny People" and Tom McCarthy's "The Cobbler"?

Ok, that last one didn't work out.

But the examples are there, and whether the impulse is full-on guilt or just simple boredom, every so often, Sandler wants more. And this time, the result is a collaboration with Noah Baumbach, on the dysfunctional family comedy "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).

It's not likely to delight anyone still waiting for "That's My Boy II." But for Sandler's pickier followers - and Baumbach's devoted fans - it's a solid and satisfying treat.

Baumbach grew up in a New York family of art and arguments, and since his terrific "The Squid and the Whale" in 2005 he's regularly looked at somewhat overprivileged, overeducated people - and how they try to use their "genius" as an excuse for bad behavior.

He has a fine bohemian bully in Harold Meyerowitz, an aging sculptor who was almost-kinda famous back in the '60s, but has spent the last 50 years teaching and getting divorced. Because he wasn't into gallery "politics," because he wouldn't play "the game," he never got the acclaim that lesser talents did.

No, it's true. Just ask him.

In addition to the giant, minimalist sculptures he's also produced three children, so-called adults who find themselves pulled back into his orbit during a medical crisis.

One, Jean, is an office drudge at Xerox. Another, Danny, is a failed musician. And the baby, Matthew, the "success" of the family, is an angsty accountant who advises the ultra rich on how to keep even more of their money.

In a way, it feels like "The Squid and the Whale" plus 30 years. But back then, Baumbach was in such a rush to look back in anger, he almost gave himself a crick in his neck; this time, he's willing to pace himself, and let the discontents and disappointments and attempts at detente develop in their own time.

Sandler is perfect as Danny, whose own sad story really holds the film together; although he hasn't worked in years, he's proud of having been the househusband and central parent in his daughter's life. But now that she's goiing off to college, his job's done. What comes next?

Finally winning his father's approval, he hopes, but Dad - as played in a late-career triumph by Dustin Hoffman - is too self-involved to even notice anyone else. He's a man who knows "people" - but doesn't know people. A man who never stops talking - but is incapable of listening, let alone saying the simple phrase "I'm proud of you."

As one of his children says, he'd better be a genius. Because if he's not, that means he's just a jerk.

Just as terrific is Ben Stiller as the rich son, playing another of those squirmy strivers he can be so good at. The busy but often overlooked Elizabeth Marvel is hugely sympathetic as the plain-jane sister who doesn't ask for sympathy - or even acknowledgement - and yet has suffered more than either of her loudly competitive brothers.

And no one is more delightful than Emma Thompson - Hoffman's co-star in the under-the-radar romance "Last Chance Harvey" - playing Harold's latest and probably last wife, whose taste for white wine and Third World boho chic can't hide her very sober, First World ambitions.

Baumbach has always been better with words than images, and while it's not the visuals in "The Meyerowitz Stories" that stick with you - a failing, perhaps, for a film about an artist - this is, as the title announces, a more literary work.

So the film is divided into separate sketches in which we get separate portraits of the various characters, with closeup looks at their own obsessions and slightly different angles on their siblings. (Perfectly, Hoffman's Harold is the same in everyone's story, consistently oblivious to other people's sore spots and old wounds.)

Yet ultimately "The Meyerowitz Stories" are more anecdotal than literary. They're not fully developed and polished fictions, but the stories we tell ourselves, at family reunions and during teary late-night phone calls - remember when Dad threw that fit at the restaurant? When he insisted we wear tuxedos for that gallery opening? When his creepy friend came on to me?

All of the stories are filled with tension, and almost every one of them ends in an argument. Rather brilliantly, it's an ongoing argument, too - with Baumbach cutting the episodes short, in the middle of a sentence, sometimes in the middle of a word.

Because there is no end, not with families. It all goes on and on, forever, long after we've grown, long after our parents die. And sometimes that's a blessing and sometimes that's a curse and mostly - at Baumbach's films say over and over - it's just life.

Ratings note: The film contains strong language, brief violence and substance abuse.

'The Meyerowitz Stories' (Unrated) Netflix (110 min.) Directed by Noah Baumbach. With Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman. Now playing in New York. THREE AND A HALF STARS

Stephen Whitty may be reached at stephenjwhitty@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwhitty. Find him on Facebook.

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