There are few surprises in Noah Baumbach’s New York-set family dramedy, The Meyerowitz Stories, one of two Netflix Originals up for the Palme d’Or this year. The one major exception? Adam Sandler. Enfant terrible of the 21st-century studio comedy, Sandler delivers by far the most accomplished performance of his prolific career (yes, better than Punch Drunk Love) as Danny, the perpetually down on his luck son of a Jewish sculptor, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman).
Baumbach tells this story in four parts; the first centers on Danny, and it’s the strongest section of the film. The second sees the successful son, Matthew (Ben Stiller), come to town, and the final two see the two stepbrothers, and their sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), brought together by a family tragedy. This fragmented structure seems novelistic. But, where a novel might utilize different voices or perspectives from section to section, Baumbach instead tells this story with the same voice, just with a general focus on a different character each time.
In the end, the sections all feel roughly the same, as non-headlining characters frequently intrude and steal the limelight. Baumbach matches that in the film’s dialogue scenes. These stubborn men, as lead by their father, often battle to command a conversation. Numerous scenes feature verbal sparring, as each character trumpets on about non-events in an attempt to make the most noise and have the last word. It’s an entertaining device and one that encourages feisty performances.
Baumbach extends this sonic significance to the film’s sound editing. While Danny is often abruptly cut off at the end of his scenes, the sound of Matthew’s footsteps, for example, bleed through to the next scene. This is an example of Baumbach’s subtle, but intelligent, direction.
Hoffman and Stiller are both well cast. Hoffman plays more to his age than in many recent roles, and his clipped confidence works a treat, while Stiller continues his strong run of work with Baumbach. But they’re both at their best when bouncing off Sandler.
Sandler steps up to the mark in every conceivable way. His character suffers from a limp and Sandler’s shambling heft dominates the screen, even when his character can’t ever catch a break in the narrative. He also shines when acting off his fellow cast, doubly surprisingly for a performer who’s been able to rule the roost in his recent star collaborations with Netflix.
Marvel gets the short end of the stick playing the forgotten-about daughter. She’s entertaining but is given very little to do. Also lost in the Oedipal struggles is Emma Thompson, playing Harold’s fourth wife. It’s a real disappointment because both women are terrific actors. But at least comfort can be taken, I suppose, in the fact that Baumbach is seemingly aware of his sidelining of female characters, with the film presenting Jean as the self-identified forgotten child. If anything, Grace Van Patten is given more to do playing Danny’s only daughter, Eliza, and that’s despite the fact that she spends the majority of the running time away at college.
Baumbach uses the film’s design to sear an autumnal hue into the textured Super 16 film stock, as countless outfits and vehicles are presented in various shades of brown. This colour palette is evocative of 1970s New York cinema but doesn’t quite capture the visual essence of other recent New York love letters such as Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. Baumbach’s visual influences go beyond colour palettes. He shoots scenes in the city streets from a distance to make the titular family seem small, and then with long lenses, which soften the background and sharpen the character focus.
The film’s humor matches the old-school tone and is gentle, in both delivery and intention. It’s derived from character and family struggles, and there’s no resorting to the cheap (and often hurtful) gags that drive so much big screen American comedy. Like a classic stand-up comedian, Baumbach is far more interested in observation than hot button provocation.
Ultimately, the great strengths of The Meyerowitz Stories are the performances. Beyond that, Baumbach’s crafted an attractive, gently funny family study, but not one that demands to be seen in a theatre. A phone screen might be sacrilege, but a large television screen seems as good a destination as any when this film drops into Netflix lists later this year.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.