A family tale told artfully
Your first response to “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” may very well be: Adam Sandler is good — REALLY good — in his sensitive, nuanced portrayal as Danny, the outsider son in the Meyerowitz brood.
The opening scene finds Danny beside Eliza, his teenage daughter (Grace Van Patten), as he tries to score a parking space in New York City. A devoted father who will soon lose Eliza to college, he is a tangle of tenderness, wistfulness and pent-up rage at the wheel in this fruitless search.
That’s just the beginning of a bittersweet, often very funny family portrait written and directed by Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha,” “The Squid and the Whale”). Available Friday on Netflix, it’s brought to life by an all-star ensemble also including Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Judd Hirsch and Candice Bergen.
Hoffman plays Harold, the paterfamilias of the sprawling Meyerowitz clan. A wilful, grandiose sculptor plagued by failed ambitions, he moulded his three adult children in sharply different ways that each still keenly suffers from.
Danny, a disappointment to Harold who fell flat as a musician, continues his futile effort to court his father’s approval. Danny’s sister Jean (Marvel) nurses the wounds of Harold’s lifelong neglect. Meanwhile, their half brother Matthew (Stiller) has tried to flee Harold’s smothering attention by moving to L.A., where he prospers as a top-tier financial advisor.
Of course, the Meyerowitzes have more in common than they may want to accept.
These “Stories” are divided into five titled sections beginning with, yes, “Danny Meyerowitz was trying to park.” But as the action stretches over several months, with many complications and cross-currents, an overarching question persists: Is it ever too late to stake out one’s own boundaries and nail down one’s identity?
That task is perhaps most difficult for Harold, who, now, in the autumn of his life and career, has more trouble than ever with the painful possibility that his achievements as a sculptor were no greater than the insufficient recognition he received for them.
His delusions of grandeur are put to a severe test when he encounters L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), a fellow artist and nominal friend who has enjoyed the level of success Harold still feels is his due.
But the notion that he might have always been second-tier continues to gnaw at his offspring.
“If he wasn’t a great artist,” one says to another, “he was just a prick.”
They may wonder what the truth is, and you may, too. But the film withholds any simple answers on the folly or nobility of chasing an artistic dream.
Yes, Harold may have been a high-toned hack. And he begat Danny, the once-promising pianist who was felled by fear of performing for an audience (“The reward wasn’t worth the self-hatred,” he says).
Meanwhile, the rest of the Meyerowitz family copes with immediate crises and long-smouldering conflicts. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say they make some headway. As for the actors, they are uniformly splendid. If singling out Adam Sandler seems patronizing, so be it. Thanks to him in particular, “The Meyerowitz Stories” is a happy reminder that, when graced with a fine script and director, an actor can be just as surprising as the character he plays.
Ben Stiller, left, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel in a scene from “The Meyerowitz Stories.”
Dustin Hoffman, left, is the Meryerowitz paterfamilias and Emma Thompson is his ditzy fourth wife, Maureen.