Review: 'The Meyerowitz' Stories' Starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, & Elizabeth Marvel

Noah Baumbach doing family dysfunction? What else is there left for him to possibly say after building his career on the poison-tongued Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding? But The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is a slight change in course. Looser, lighter, and episodic, it should make for one of Netflix's most easily accessible films, ironically, right alongside Adam Sandler's reprehensible-but-popular comedies the streaming service has exclusive rights to. Chances are, fans of those movies will drift over to 'Meyerowitz' at the sight of Sandler's name, and come away stunned that it's one of those rare occasions when he's not farting to get a laugh.  Baumbach has pulled a terrific performance out of him, as he routinely does with all of his casts.

Sandler is Danny, one of three children to Harold (Dustin Hoffman), a self-important Manhattan sculptor who believes his work has gone unappreciated for far too long. His children have largely grown up in his shadow, and have each paid the price for it in different ways. Danny has musical talent, shown in his occasional piano sessions with his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), but was never encouraged to pursue it. Now he's unemployed, separated from his wife, and adrift. Jean (Elizabeth Marvel, a marvel in her own right), Danny half-sister, is basically invisible. Frumpy and with a bland Xerox job (she's basically a photocopy herself), Jean rarely speaks unless spoken to, so used to being ignored by her father and tolerated by her half-brothers. Jean and Danny hear constant praise of Matthew (Ben Stiller), the "successful" child, who has moved far away and actually made money at his career. There's something to be said about needing to move thousands of miles away to L.A. to do it, though. Perhaps his siblings should have taken a hint?

There's also something to be said about staying close to home, and Baumbach tries to make this as much about loving your family's quirks as hating them for it.  When Matthew returns home for a retrospective of Harold's career (it's a group show, which Harold resents), all of the past baggage comes rising to the surface. Not just the resentment they have for Harold, whose presence stifled them all in different ways, but also between the siblings who coped with it without regard for anybody else.

It's not an unfamiliar premise, and Baumbach doesn't try to break the mold here. His dense, talky pompous narrative will be familiar not only to him, but to followers of Woody Allen. His dialogue is frequently peppered with pop culture references and clever asides, but it lacks the snap of The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, or the excellent While We're Young. As a fan of the more naturalistic vibrant style Baumbach has taken since Frances Ha, it's a little disappointing to see him step backwards in such a bland way. Visually it's set up in rather rote, anonymous fashion, taking on the static look of a stageplay, with locales that hardly leap off the page.

Baumbach's films are mostly performance-driven, anyway, and he get a couple of terrific performances from Sandler and Marvel. I think it's time we stop making excuses for Sandler by referencing Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me as proof he's really a good dramatic actor. Yes, he is, but mostly he prefers to make Ridiculous 6 or Pixels. That's on him. But it IS good to see him really act again, making us feel something for the slacker Danny, whose pent-up anger comes out in strangely-timed bursts (not unlike Punch-Drunk Love). What also shines through is Danny's love and concern for his daughter and his half-siblings, even when they don't show him the same courtesy. Elizabeth Marvel has a tendency to play really strong women (check her out in House of Cards, also on Netflix), so it's uncomfortable at first to see her as the mousy, introverted Jean. She makes the most out of a character that is largely marginalized in the movie, just as Jean is marginalized within the Meyerowitz clan. Her chapter emerges almost as an "Oh yeah, we forgot about Jean", and even when it does it doesn't reveal as much about her as the other chapters do her brothers. It's disappointing to see such focus on the males in the family, especially since Stiller's Matthew is so forgettable, but Marvel quietly steals each opportunity she gets.

The Meyerowitz Stories isn't Baumbach's sharpest examination of defective family dynamics, but unlike some of his other movies it won't make you want to disown everyone you know.

Rating: 3 out of 5