Adam Sandler can act—like legitimately act. It’s a strange sensation to watch someone who has become known for some of the laziest, most uninspired comedies of the 21st century deliver an absolutely exhilarating, heartbreaking performance. Where has this guy been hiding? The answer is pretty obvious: under a gigantic pile of money he gets for making lowbrow, bottom-of-the-barrell comedies. Apparently, there are layers to Adam Sandler he only feels like exploring once a decade.
The last time we saw Sandler in a movie that wasn’t completely horrible was Paul Thomas Anderson’s super quirky “Punch Drunk Love.” We could see the raw talent and intensity Sandler could exhibit when not playing well-intentioned idiots or dressing up to play his own twin sister. He tried again to deliver something more dramatic with the drama “Reign Over Me” but found himself mired in the murky molasses of melodrama. “The Meyerowitz Stories” might be his first exceptional dramatic performance; in fact, he won a Gotham Independent Film Award for the role.
Sandler plays Danny, a kind but awkward middle-aged man still desperate for validation from a father who abandoned him emotionally. Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is an aging college professor and would-be sculptor who never found the success enjoyed by friends and contemporaries. He’s a person who is framed by his failures, which are many. These include four failed marriages and three children, none of whom ever matter that much to Harold. In spite of his shortcomings, his children are invested in their father’s life, still. Danny believes in his father and wants to be included in his life and artistic endeavors.
Matthew (Ben Stiller) is Harold’s favorite son, but that’s not saying a lot. In his extremely passive-aggressive way, Harold finds a way to mistreat all of his children. They have all failed him by not being artists and following in his footsteps—nothing they do in their own lives is worthy of praise. Matthew has become a successful accountant who runs his own high-priced firm. He still feels like a failure in the eyes of his father. It is the one thing that connects Danny, Matthew and their sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel).
“The Meyerowitz Stories” is a wonderful bit of quirky melancholy from writer/director Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”). There are so many moments of wince-inducing familial cruelty—honest, brutal instances of absolute devastation that can only be delivered by people who are desperate to be loved and accepted. There’s a lot packed into the film about loving difficult people and the agony of searching for value from folks incapable of administering that level of care.
I loved so much of this weird, wonderful movie. There are some strange choices with untimely cuts and fades. But all the tiny flourishes are made irrelevant by a cast of extremely talented actors, who deliver exceptional performances and create a realistic and heartbreaking broken family.
Adam Sandler is effortless in his portrayal of Danny as a perpetually crumbling human being, who hopes to be put back together again by a family that really only exists in name. Ben Stiller is equally impressive in a role that plays to his strengths as the straight-laced guy who is trying to keep his emotions in check. Dustin Hoffman manages to bring a fresh level of unlikability to Harold. Hopefully, audiences will feel the same level of contempt for the character I did, and wonder why his family isn’t beating him with a sack of doorknobs instead of endlessly absorbing his emotional abuse.
I’ve always admired filmmakers who can find moments of beauty, poignancy and humor from the misery of human existence. The members of the Meyerowitz family are an eclectic blend of missing pieces that search for the right fit. Baumbach has created a group of lovable losers who end up drawing audiences into this dysfunctional dark world. It is the kind of movie a smaller market like Wilmington would have waited weeks or months to see, only after a small theatrical release. Thanks to so many independent films being picked up and financed by streaming services like Netflix, fans have access to more quality movies than ever before. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is one worth seeing.