Family dysfunction goes into overdrive in Noah Baumbach’s fitfully amusing, overly shrill and preciously titled comedy-drama. Though it definitely overstays its welcome, however, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” does have one redeeming feature: a delicious performance by Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman plays Harold Meyerowitz, a sculptor recently retired from his position on the Bard art faculty living with his third wife Maureen (Emma Thompson), an alcoholic hippie type, in the family’s NYC home. Joining them are his eldest son Danny (Adam Sandler) and his teen daughter Liza (Grace Van Patten), whom he’s dropping off for her freshman year at the college. Danny, who gave up any chance for a music career years earlier to be a stay-at-home dad, plans on staying for awhile because he and his wife, who remained together until Jean finished high school, are now splitting up.
The dynamic among Harold, Maureen and Danny is not good. Danny thinks his father’s new wife is a bit flaky (she is), but his relationship with the old man has never been strong in any event: when Harold and his first wife divorced, Danny and his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) weren’t treated all that well by Harold’s second wife Julia (Candice Bergen, who has a strong cameo) and eventually went to live with their mother. Danny is also peeved when he learns that Harold plans to sell the family home and move to Maureen’s house in the country—especially when he learns that the deal is being arranged by his half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller), Julia’s son, a hotshot investment exec living in California, who just happens to be coming into town for a meeting with a client (Adam Driver).
Still, Danny is always trying to be agreeable, and when Liza has gone off to Bard and Maureen to her place, he works to mend his relationship with Harold. That includes convincing the old man to say yes to a joint Bard faculty show he and Jean are trying to arrange. It’s a difficult sell, because the chief aspect of Harold’s character is the certainty that he’s always been unappreciated, on campus as well as the in the larger art world. Everything he says and does not only implies his enduring bitterness over his lack of recognition, but emphasizes how he always put his professional life over his family, whom he obviously neglected.
Harold’s haughty attitude extends to colleagues like J.T. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), a good-natured fellow who’s had far greater success than he ever did and is about to have a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Danny not only persuades Harold to go to the opening but to take him along. Things don’t go especially well there—Harold takes umbrage at the slightest provocation—but at least Danny gets to renew his acquaintance with J.T.’s daughter Loretta (Rebecca Miller), whom he’s obviously interested in.
By this time Matthew has entered the picture, and it turns out that he has issues with Harold, too; their day out together ends in a shouting match. But all is forgiven when Harold suddenly falls into a coma and the three children congregate around his hospital bed, preparing themselves for what seems his imminent death. That turns the focus of the film from him to Danny, Matthew and to a lesser extent Jean, and what follows are periodic bonding scenes juxtaposed with altercations. Frankly in Hoffman’s absence the picture loses its edge—in place of his low-keyed routine of splenetic self-absorption, which is pretty continuously funny, we get a lot of fraternal sniping (and even some slapstick physical comedy) with Sandler and Stiller that comes off as forced. Marvel has a few good moments, but is overshadowed by her colleagues, while Thompson never seems to find the proper pitch for Maureen. And when the movie wraps up, it turns out that we’re meant to sympathize with Danny.
Sandler makes that fairly easy to do, since he gives a performance that, for him, is relatively restrained, even if the reliance on a limp, which isn’t always apparent, is a bit much. Stiller mostly does his usual shtick, which is sporadically funny, though we’ve seen it a lot before (and more successfully—in the recent “Brad’s Status” and Baumbach’s own “Greenberg,” for instance). Van Patten is okay, but Hirsch brings some vitality to a guy who is a rather pleasant contrast to the sour Harold.
As usual with Baumbach’s writing, there are amusing moments, but others that are more squirm-inducing than genuinely funny. He’s done better, more coherent work in the past. (Indeed, the cutesy subtitle points to the script’s relative sloppiness.) Technically, however, all is proficient, with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, production designer Gerald Sullivan and editor Jennifer Lame doing solid work. Randy Newman contributes a pleasant, unobtrusive score.
The Meyerowitz family as a whole is an uneven bunch. But Hoffman’s Harold is a joy to watch, though he’d be impossible to live with.