NEW YORK — Your first response to “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” may very well be: Adam Sandler is good — REALLY good — in his sensitive, nuanced portrayal as Danny, the outsider son in the Meyerowitz brood.
The opening scene finds Danny in the driver’s seat beside Eliza, his teenage daughter (Grace Van Patten), as he tries to score a parking space in New York City. A devoted father who will soon lose Eliza to college, he is a tangle of tenderness, wistfulness and pent-up rage at the wheel in this fruitless search.
That’s just the beginning of a bittersweet, often very funny family portrait written and directed by Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha,” ”The Squid and the Whale”). Available Friday on Netflix and in theaters, it’s brought to life by an all-star ensemble also including Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Judd Hirsch and Candice Bergen.
Hoffman plays Harold, the paterfamilias of the sprawling Meyerowitz clan. A willful, grandiose sculptor plagued by failed ambitions, he molded his three adult children in sharply different ways that each still keenly suffers from.
Danny, a disappointment to Harold who fell flat as a musician, continues his futile effort to court his father’s approval. Danny’s sister Jean (Marvel) nurses the wounds of Harold’s lifelong neglect. Meanwhile, their half brother Matthew (Stiller) has tried to flee Harold’s smothering attention by moving to Los Angeles, where he prospers as the opposite of an artist: a top-tier financial adviser.
Of course, the Meyerowitzes have more in common than they may want to accept.
“It’s hard to have a relationship and a child,” says Matthew, who has a checkered marital record, to his dad. “I imagine you felt that, too.”
“No, not really.”
“Dad, you’ve been married four times!”
“Three,” Harold fires back. “The first one was annulled.”
At that moment, Harold is married to Maureen (Emma Thompson), who, when she isn’t drinking, seems inherently a ditz.
“Where’s the gourmet hummus?” Harold asks her as he searches through the kitchen.
“Upstairs,” she replies, to which he responds reasonably, “Why?”
These “Stories” are divided into five titled sections beginning with, yes, “Danny Meyerowitz was trying to park.” But as the action stretches over several months, with many complications and cross-currents, an overarching question persists: Is it ever too late to stake out one’s own boundaries and nail down one’s identity?
That task is perhaps most difficult for Harold, who, now, in the autumn of his life and career, has more trouble than ever with the painful possibility that his achievements as a sculptor were no greater than the insufficient recognition he received for them.
His delusions of grandeur are put to a severe test when he encounters L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), a fellow artist and nominal friend who has enjoyed the level of success Harold still feels is his due.
But the notion that he might have always been second-tier continues to gnaw at his offspring.
“If he wasn’t a great artist,” one says to another, “he was just a prick.”
They may wonder what the truth is, and you may, too. But the film withholds any simple answers on the folly or nobility of chasing an artistic dream.
Yes, Harold may have been a high-toned hack. And he begat Danny, the once-promising pianist who was felled by fear of performing for an audience (“The reward wasn’t worth the self-hatred,” he says).
Danny’s daughter Eliza, off at college, carries the Meyerowitz gene as a would-be filmmaker. She is arguably the family’s most grounded, level-headed member, and though her student films may strike you as rather, um, odd, she seems joyously creative and fulfilled. Maybe that alone spells artistic success.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Meyerowitz family copes with immediate crises and long-smoldering conflicts. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say they make some headway. And despite the fact that the film, with a running time of nearly two hours, is a bit too leisurely in delivering insight to its characters, they reveal themselves, scene after scene, as people you are likely to be pleased spending time with.
As for the actors, they are uniformly splendid. If singling out Adam Sandler seems patronizing, so be it. Thanks to him in particular, “The Meyerowitz Stories” is a happy reminder that, when graced with a fine script and director, an actor can be just as surprising as the character he plays. (AP)