First Robert Redford, and now Dustin Hoffman, Netflix’s impressive run of form in 2017 movies has attracted some of the biggest stars of the ‘60s silver screen to films that will be seen by most on a laptop. It’s a sign of the changing times, but far from signalling any sort of death knell for cinema, the streaming service’s increasing commitment to producing and distributing original films making up ground lost by nervous studios, reluctant to take risks. If a Netflix release is what it takes to get a comedy as excellent as The Meyerowitz Stories released, then I’m all for their expanded presence in the industry.
The Meyerowtiz Stories’ premise is hardly a surprise for a Noah Baumbach film. A flawed New York family, headed by an arrogant and stubborn patriarch (in this case sculptor Harold Meyerowitz, played by Hoffman) attempt to come together to settle old disputes, often failing hilariously along the way. Harold isn’t in every scene, but his presence always weighs heavy on his kids, regardless of his actual proximity to them. Most broken are Dan (Adam Sandler) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) who, despite a lifetime of neglect, are irresistibly and constantly drawn back into their father’s world, while their half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) seems to have found a sense of escape by moving to LA.
Baumbach sets up these family dynamics with breezy ease, establishing years of relationships with single conversations laden with razor sharp, breathless dialogue. None of the Meyerowtiz clan can ever really stop talking, especially Harold, and their words come out in sublimely executed flurries, unintrusive directing letting the writing and acting speak for themselves. It’s a joy to have Hoffman remind us what a gifted comic performer he is, and The Meyerowtiz Stories does what has been thought impossible for a good few years; it makes Adam Sandler not just likable, but properly brilliant.
It’s the kind of performance that you wish Sandler would do far more of, exceptionally funny and also more than capable of selling the dramatic sides to the role. Dan is, despite his own upbringing, a pretty great dad to his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), who is about to move away to college, and Sandler gets all the excitement, pride, and pain of a parent across without ever being too on the nose. In a hilarious (though overused) touch, whenever Dan’s yelling goes past a certain decibel point, Baumbach ruthlessly undermines his rage by cutting away before he can finish his sentence.
Hoffman is on rare form here, very funny on his own and sharing a sparkling chemistry with Emma Thompson, who is clearly having an absolute blast as the drunkenly enthusiastic Maureen, Harold’s fourth wife. An unbelievably narcissistic man-child, you will find yourself wanting to punch Harold in the face, but he’s so ridiculously funny – with a silly run that nearly had me on the floor laughing – that you’ll also never want him to leave the screen. Stiller and Marvel have straighter roles, with Marvel’s Jean absolutely tragic in her consistent commitment to her unempathetic family.
The Meyerowitz Stories is also packed with great cameos, with Adam Driver getting perhaps the film’s best line read in his single scene and Sigourney Weaver showing up for what might be the best cameo in a career full of them. Adding more than just ‘hey that’s them’ surprise value, these small appearances flesh out the Meyerowitz world, allowing us to imagine characters’ lives both within and without the gravitational pull of Harold’s ego. This is important, as a decline in his health following a fall while walking the dog forces Harold into the hospital and his children to face his possible death.
It’s a turn to the more dramatic that doesn’t sacrifice too many laughs, and Baumbach softens the very real fears of parental loss by having Eliza start sending her student films to the family. These play like hyper-sexualised Tim and Eric sketches, adding a very welcome touch of the surreal to proceedings. In having such a healthy relationship between the nervous Dan and supremely confident Eliza, Baumbach proves he can wring laughs out of both functional and dysfunctional family ties.
It’s an impressive feat, one of very many in The Meyerowitz Stories, another prominent feather in the cap of its stacked cast (probably Baumbach’s starriest yet), its writer-director, and an ever more exciting distributor. A couple of beats feel a little too familiar, but they can’t detract from how funny and purely entertaining this film is, with thrilling reminders of how good Adam Sandler and Dustin Hoffman can actually be when the material is up to snuff.