Dustin Hoffman plays Harold Meryerowitz, a minor artist and the self-absorbed patriarch of a fractured (but very funny) family in “The Meyerowitz Stories,” the new film from writer-director Noah Baumbach.
Everyone in it is terrific (even the poodle, who isn’t in it much, but did win the Cannes Palm Dog Award), but Adam Sandler is surprisingly great as his neglected oldest son, Danny. Outside of his usual schlocky comedies, Sandler is still funny, but also wonderfully subtle in his best role to date. It almost makes you angry that he hasn’t done more great films like this in his career.
The whole Meryerowitz family is awkwardly reunited in New York City when Harold wants to mount a career retrospective, largely inspired by his rivalry with longtime friend L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), who’s the better known and more respected artist.
Meanwhile, Danny and his wife (whom we never meet) have split up and his daughter (Grace Van Patten) is heading off to college. He’s staying with his father and stepmother (a hilariously ditzy Emma Thompson) temporarily, but Harold makes it clear there’s a time limit on the offer.
Danny is rather like a dog himself: Immensely likable and easy-going and sadly eager to please. It’s all the more painful because of how completely overlooked he is by his father, who’s always doted more on his son from a subsequent marriage, Matthew (Ben Stiller). He even named his most famous piece “Matthew,” because he fondly remembers Matthew helping him make it, although his youngest son can’t remember that at all.
Matthew lives in Los Angeles and is a high-powered celebrity banker. Despite being the favorite son, he spends as little time as possible with his father. He comes home for the exhibit and possible sale of the family brownstone, thinking he’s done being mad at his father. He couldn’t be more wrong, which leads to very funny scenes like a pricey lunch gone wrong, thanks to Harold’s maddeningly selfish behavior.
There’s also Danny’s consistently negative sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), who’s resigned to being second-best in her father’s life and taken for granted by everyone else in the family.
If you are tuning in for the dog (whom Harold named Bruno after the Werner Herzog film), he doesn’t have a major role, but he does set a key plot line in motion. And we have to wince as we laugh at Harold’s preferential treatment of the dog — Danny has to literally move Bruno off the couch so he can go to bed.
When a crisis occurs, the siblings pull together — in between squabbles over long-held resentments. Interspersed with the laughs (which are plentiful) are authentically painful moments that just might bring a tear or two. Baumbach juggles the comedy and tragedy of their lives in the deftest manner.
It’s one of the best films of the year and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.