The Meyerowitz Stories: Adam Sandler give his best performance in a decade

Cannes 2017: Noah Baumbach's star-studded latest for Netflix is a welcome addition to his great comic oeuvre

Film Title: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Director: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten, Judd Hirsch

Genre: Comedy

Running Time: 110 min

Sun, May 21, 2017, 15:22

   

Noah Baumbach’s films now exist on a spectrum from the icy misanthropy of Greenberg to the comparative warmth of Frances Ha. The Squid and the Whale, his breakthrough from 2005, arrived somewhere in the middle - around yellow or green - and, as an unofficial follow-up, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) sits right beside. It is a comedy. But it’s not a riot. It is sombre about family relationships. But it admits hope.

Like the earlier film, The Meyerowitz Stories concerns itself with the broken children of a distinguished New York intellectual. But we’ve moved on a bit. Dustin Hoffman plays Harold Meyerowitz, sculptor and teacher, as an ambulatory sack of low-key grievance.

When, in a restaurant, somebody places a glass on his table, he behaves as if they’ve annexed a parcel of his property. He is constantly bitter at the awareness that, whereas he had to sink into academia, a contemporary is now lauded across the city.

Harold’s wife, played by a funny but underused Emma Thompson, starts on the vodka at lunchtime before driving her car into the nearest tree. None of his offspring are happy. Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is withdrawn. Matthew (Ben Stiller), an accountant, worries continually about material things. Danny (Adam Sandler), once a talented pianist, is trapped in a cycle of underachievement.

To say that this is the best Netflix release yet for Sandler is to offer praise so faint it barely merits the description. But he genuinely is very good. That actor has always toyed with childlike vulnerability and, here, he exploits that trait to make Danny the soft heart of a warring tribe.

When he briefly loses his temper with the teenage daughter he adores, Sandler somehow manages to divert the sinister streak that lies beneath his broad comic turns. It becomes a genuinely sad moment.

Baumbach’s films are odd, but the characters do tend to change and learn in the conventional fashion. The Meyerowitz Stories has to do with the building of an accommodation between and across generations.

We establish early on that Harold is probably too old and too stubborn to change his grumpy ways. But Matthew and Danny are allowed to pass along character arcs. Among other things, they are forced towards an understanding of how values have changed.

Adam Sandler and Dustin Hoffmann in The Meyerowitz Stories
Adam Sandler and Dustin Hoffmann in The Meyerowitz Stories

Now 47, Baumbach is beginning to look like a prime defender of Generation X. In While We’re Young, the characters learnt to get over their envy of millennials and embrace middle age. Like The Squid and the Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories has unhappy things to say about the parenting values of some urban baby boomers. Harry and his contemporaries were too willing to sit back and let children raise themselves.

These arguments are made through a series of confrontations that always tend towards the comic, but rarely aim to split any sides. Randy Newman provides lovely incidental music and two very good songs. Our own Robbie Ryan, now a Cannes regular, shoots the attractive New York environments in beguiling, fluid shades. We’ve certainly seen that city in Baumbach before. Nothing much is new. But the picture is a welcome addition to one of the great contemporary comic oeuvres.