Adam Sandler (left) and Ben Stiller play stepbrothers with lingering childhood resentments in Noah Baumbach's new film The Meyerowitz Stories.”
Adam Sandler (left) and Ben Stiller play stepbrothers with lingering childhood resentments in Noah Baumbach's new film The Meyerowitz Stories.”

‘Meyerowitz Stories’ unspools pent-up family resentments

Written and directed by a Jewish New Yorker and starring the unmistakably Jewish trio of Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” somehow manages to be bereft of local color, ethnic flavor and pithy witticisms.

Noah Baumbach’s erstwhile comedy of familial fiascos and resentments does raise a handful of interesting, more cultural, questions: What does an adult child owe a lousy parent? Is artistic talent inherited? Is there a way to make up for decades-old insults of siblings?

Arriving in the fresh wake of the High Holy Days, “The Meyerowitz Stories” does have the capacity to provoke reflection and encourage communication among some viewers. But one can break a fast with a shrink-wrapped corned beef sandwich from 7-Eleven if nothing else is at hand.

“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” opens Friday, Oct. 13 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas and debuts the same day on Netflix.

The film begins on a note of cacophonous Manhattan chaos, as Danny (Sandler) banters with his teenage daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) with the radio blaring a song while they look for a parking space.

Their destination is the brownstone of Danny’s father and Eliza’s grandfather, Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman), a longtime Bard professor and sculptor whose artistic reputation peaked decades ago. Nonetheless, Harold remains a self-deluded legend in his own mind.

His narcissism is annoying, but what’s worse is his casual, oblivious and persistent denigration of Danny. A textbook example of a son who disappointed his father, Danny gave up music, became a househusband and never made anything of himself, professionally.

Admittedly, Danny—never called Daniel, mind you, and usually garbed in shorts—has never grown up. But he does have one redeeming quality: He’s a mensch.

His mousy sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), is a good egg, too, but she’s submissive and ineffectual in the family dynamic. Later in the movie, when it seems as if Baumbach has sidelined her from his compilation of Meyerowitz stories, she is given a scene in which she reveals her defining moment from childhood.

By that time, the prodigal son—by another mother—returns from his home in Los Angeles, to brighten Harold’s routine. Matthew (Stiller) is an astute, no-nonsense financial adviser (a success, in other words) who’s figured out how to live without receiving his father’s unconditional love and approval. Or so he thinks.

“The Meyerowitz Stories” falls into the numbing subgenre of post-Woody Allen, dialogue-driven ensemble pieces set in the alluring cityscape of New York. In this movie, all of the exposition is conveyed through dialogue, which is amusing when it’s subtle and irksome most of the time.

The most curious aspect of this somewhat-estranged family is how non-Jewish they are. Harold’s wives weren’t Jewish, so they imparted nothing of the culture to the kids, while Harold was studiously and happily absent, presumably in a classroom or his studio.

So the Meyerowitzes aren’t assimilated so much as ignorant of their heritage. Deep down, that may account for some of the frustration and isolation that Matthew, Danny and Jean convey.

Alas, none of the characters are remotely endearing, although Danny does invite our sympathy. However, it takes until late in the movie for Sandler to generate the necessary pathos in his performance.

While “The Meyerowitz Stories” marks the third unsatisfying collaboration between Stiller and Baumbach after “Greenberg” and “While We’re Young,” it is Stiller’s most persuasive, and ultimately touching, performance by far.

For his part, Hoffman is given one note to play, and his character quickly becomes tiresome. When he leaves the movie for a sizable spell, it’s actually a relief.

That plot development serves the purpose of throwing the half-brothers (and Jean, to a lesser degree) together to avoid and then address their lingering grudges and misunderstandings left over from childhood. Baumbach (whose breakthrough film was the 2006 “The Squid and the Whale”) isn’t Sam Shepard, needless to say, and he lobs softballs rather than grenades at the weighty and universal issue of sibling rivalry.

There are some wonderful moments in “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” where an emotion or attitude is encapsulated in a line or a look. It’s almost worth sitting through the whole movie just for those morsels.

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.