It’s not easy being raised the child of a celebrated artist. Truth be told, it’s not so great being raised the child of a minor, mostly unrecognized artist either, which is closer to the dynamic writer-director Noah Baumbach wants to explore with “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” a chatty New York comedy featuring the best role in 15 years for Adam Sandler. It’s the story of a messed-up clan that seems never to have heard of therapy, but could definitely use it, and the family crisis that conveniently allows them all to say their peace.
Sandler plays Danny Meyerowitz, the oldest son of seventysomething New York sculptor Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman, who’s always been funny, but gets to really sink his teeth into some of his best material here). With no shtick to fall back on, Sandler is forced to act, and it’s a glorious thing to watch — even for those fans who like him best in perpetual man-child mode (don’t worry: the character is a full-grown variation on that familiar Sandler prototype).
Perhaps that’s why Netflix, which is in the Adam Sandler business, scooped up this relatively high-brow Scott Rudin production just weeks before its Cannes film festival premiere. Still, it’s odd to think that the company responsible for “Sandy Wexler” and “The Ridiculous Six” could conceivably earn Sandler his first Oscar nomination — and his best role since “Punch-Drunk Love” played Cannes in 2002.
While undeniably amusing, “The Meyerowitz Stories” is a long way from the kind of slapstick comedies in which fans are accustomed to seeing Sandler and Ben Stiller, who co-star with Elizabeth Marvel as Meyerowitz siblings Danny, Matthew and Jean, now grown. Sandler plays the family’s eldest son, who’s never worked in the conventional sense, but seems to have done a pretty good job raising his daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten, a luminous discovery), a freshman film student at Bard.
Baumbach has subdivided the movie, which feels like a single coherent narrative, into a series of chapters, as if to justify the inexplicably pretentious title. Now in his seventies, Harold tends to tell the same stories, like the one about how Matthew used to sit on the floor as he worked, offering suggestions on how the piece in progress might turn out. Harold’s kids have heard most of these anecdotes so often they could write his memoirs themselves, if needed. And yet, remarkably enough, they’re still discovering small but significant things they never knew about one another — which is why it’s so satisfying to tag along with them for these trying few months.
Now on his fourth marriage to a perpetually sloshed younger woman (Emma Thompson) barely older than his kids, Harold is beginning to think about his legacy. One of his contemporaries has just been given a significant retrospective at MoMA, and though Harold is proud never to have stooped to publicity stunts, the closest he can claim is that the Whitney Museum acquired one of his pieces decades earlier. Though Harold is still working, most of his sculptures are just gathering dust in the family’s large New York apartment, which Matthew, a “personal wealth” consultant, is working to sell, artwork and all, to an interested gay couple.
Matthew doesn’t turn up until the second chapter, appearing like an alien to this otherwise bohemian family. Compared to Sandler’s paunchy, unshaven Danny, who hobbles around on a bad hip and plays original compositions on the family piano, Matthew is tanned, fit and hyper-energetic, a highly functioning stress addict who never has time for his family, including his own off-screen ex-wife and child.
Ironically, though Matthew is clearly Harold’s favorite, the bearded, overbearing old man never tells his son as much, which no doubt explains much of his dysfunction. By contrast, Matthew’s mother (played by Candice Bergen in a single, striking scene) has been introspective enough to realize her failings as a parent and goes out of her way to say as much. It’s a potentially life-changing admission on her part, delivered to the wrong people (she tells Harold and Matthew, though the apology was clearly intended for Danny and Jean, who suffered her coldness for the duration of their father’s third marriage). Harold never experiences such an insight, and his kids are all the more dysfunctional for it, always trying to measure up to their vision of their father — which they’ve set far loftier than it deserves.
The next time we see Harold, he’s in the hospital, recovering from a blow to the head. This time, all three kids are there, and the situation is serious enough that they’re encouraged to take a counseling session, in which they’re told five things they should say before it’s too late: “I love you.” “I forgive you.” “Forgive me.” “Thank you.” “Goodbye.” Obvioulsy, these are statements the Meyerowitzes would have done well to work into regular rotation their entire lives, but now’s as good a time as any to start.
Now, as the three grown children prepare for a group exhibition in which one of Harold’s sculptures will be featured, some of these sentiments finally start to come out — although the opening itself sparks a pair of speeches (plus a knock-down, drag-out fight) that seem entirely inappropriate for the occasion.
As a student of classic comedies, Baumbach uses strategies that work, freshening them up with an ensemble of vivid, fully dimensional characterizations — the kind we typically only meet on shows like “Transparent” where the creators have ample time to render them so fully. Unless you’re a regular New York theatergoer, Marvel (who plays Jean) is the least familiar to audiences, and her role doesn’t get quite the heft it deserves. “You guys will never understand what it’s like to be me in this family,” she says at one point, and it’s too bad that she’s right, since the talented actress deserved a chapter on par with her two siblings.
But Netflix audiences have presumably come to see Sandler and Stiller, and Baumbach has tipped the balance in their favor — even if the whole exercise has been about establishing a formidable patriarch and slowly chipping away at his self-styled legend.
If art historians someday decide that Harold Meyerowitz’s sculpture was the work of genius, would that excuse the fact that the man himself was a selfish jerk? If his three kids eventually recover from the turbulence and neglect of their respective childhoods, would that somehow make him a better parent? And even if a stunted artist like Danny is a disappointment, shouldn’t it count for something that his daughter Eliza has turned out so well?
These are big questions, richly explored, and with any luck, the Netflix deal will mean that Baumbach’s drama will find an audience beyond mere art houses. It’s the kind of recommended viewing that might come up after watching “Flirting With Disaster” or “The Royal Tenenbaums” — in a world where either of those movies were available on the streaming service, that is. Although technically an acquisition (as opposed to a project they greenlit themselves), as the best Netflix Original film to date, perhaps this is a sign that the company is finally taking a more discerning interest in the content of their “content.”