Photo: Atsushi Nishijima, Netflix
You cannot keep from thinking about Woody Allen while watching Noah Baumbach’s (“Frances Ha”) films. Baumbach’s characters tend to inhabit an arty New York milieu similar to Allen’s.
You also cannot help but think about what Baumbach has that Allen lacks: Empathy for his characters. Not insight into them, but empathy for them. And warmth, which mostly has gone missing from Allen films since “Hannah and Her Sisters” but is present in all of Baumbach’s, and never more so than in “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” opening Friday theatrically and on Netflix.
As it explores the relationships of three adult siblings (Adam Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel, Ben Stiller) to their selfish, oft-married father (Dustin Hoffman) and each other, the film bubbles with that innate filial love that can soften the edges of resentment in all but the worst families.
The Meyerowitzes are not the worst, but they are fractured. Patriarch Harold, a sculptor and retired professor, always put work first. When he acknowledged family, there was a pecking order. Danny and Jean (Sandler and Marvel) were passed over for younger half-brother Matthew (Stiller), because Matthew was part of Harold’s new start with a new wife (Candice Bergen, sharp in a cameo).
The film does not tell us much about the elder pair’s mother, but gives a strong indication, through Sandler’s soulful performance, she was salt of the Earth. Danny got it somewhere.
Sandler has been serious before, in “Punch Drunk Love” and “Funny People.” It did not take. If it had, “Grown Ups 2” probably would not have been made. It takes here. Sandler lends Danny an open-heartedness that grounds the film. You can see the pain register on Sandler’s face when Danny’s father insults him, and then see Danny work to move past it.
He’s also a great dad, to a teenager (an ebullient Grace Van Patten) about to go off to college as the movie opens. Before leaving, she accompanies Danny to the home Harold shares with his current, bohemian wife (Emma Thompson, looking uncomfortable in her colorful clothes and the role).
Danny has split from his wife and is bunking at his dad’s temporarily. Harold emphasizes the temporary part while also suggesting stay-at-home father Danny find a career. Jean, who joins the family for dinner, has a job at Xerox. Yet she still disappoints, in not being Matthew.
Marvel, who gives Jean a shy strength, does not look like Sandler. But the actors share the same slightly dejected demeanor when Harold mentions Matthew. Yet Jean and Danny embrace Matthew as their little brother, even though he is careful to refer to them as “half-siblings” once he arrives from Los Angeles.
Matthew, having bristled at all that paternal attention growing up, moved to the other Coast. Yet, as “Meyerowitz” illustrates, one cannot elude one’s parents by changing cities. You carry them with you.
Matthew, a highly strung money manager (has Stiller ever been lightly strung?) is as career-obsessed as Harold. He shows bursts of frustration that mimic his entitled father’s tendency to take umbrage at any perceived slight. Even easy-going Danny has a rage issue, although it seems specific to city driving.
Hoffman perfectly captures the effects of aging on an egomaniac. Harold is fuzzy about a lot of things. Yet any mention of his art immediately clears the fog. But the rub with parents is they are never just one thing. Harold can be fun, as we see when Danny watches old VHS tapes with his dad. These scenes show the roots of Danny’s enduring patience with his father.
Danny’s persistence in fighting Matthew’s chilly attitude toward him eventually pays off in light-hearted moments between the brothers. It is a relief to see Stiller uncoil, after being tense throughout “Meyerowitz” and a dozen films before that.
Carla Meyer is a Northern California freelance writer
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Drama-comedy. Starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman. (Not rated. 110 minutes).