It’s tempting to call Adam Sandler “Halley’s Actor,” since he makes us endure one wretched, inane comedy after another in between his all-too-occasional impressive performances with filmmakers outside of the Happy Madison stable.
But while the waiting can be agony, the payoffs are worth it, in the case of Sandler’s triumphs in “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Funny People” (and in the less overall-successful “Spanglish” and “Reign Over Me”). Add “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” to the list of movies that prove that The Artist Formerly Known as Opera Man has real chops.
Not that the film is crafted as a showcase for Sandler; he’s one piece of a brilliant ensemble that writer-director Noah Baumbach has brought together for a bitingly funny family story; it might call to mind Woody Allen or J.D. Salinger along the way, but in the end, this is pure Baumbach, from its compassionate analysis of broken families to its empathetic insistence that even the most broken can still find redemption.
As we open “The Meyerowitz Stories” — rest assured, the intertitles and literary narration are used sparingly and never preciously — the family is in flux: retired sculptor-turned-academic Harold (Dustin Hoffman) and his current wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) want to sell the New York apartment and move upstate. That’s upsetting news for Danny (Sandler), whose daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten, “Tramps”) is heading off to college; her departure from the household spells the end of both Danny’s marriage and his career as a stay-at-home dad, and he had hoped to crash with Harold and Maureen for a while.
While Danny and his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), both the children of Danny’s second wife, have stayed close to their father and taken care of him, Harold has always favored Matthew (Ben Stiller), his son with third wife Julia (Candice Bergen). Matthew has separated himself from Harold both spiritually (he gave up on art to go into finance) and physically (he lives in L.A.), but Harold still dotes on him with the affection and attention he denies his children who are closer at hand.
There is a plot here, involving secrets from the past, and a possibility of a gallery show for Harold, and some brushes with illness, but for the most part “Meyerowitz” is about the complicated bonds of family, and the choices that adult children make about hanging onto resentments or letting them go. Harold seems locked into his choices — like many an aging dad, he insists on seeing the world as he decides to and won’t be talked out of it — but Danny, Jean and Matthew still have options.
Baumbach places the Meyerowitzes within the context of a larger world, from Eliza’s college boyfriends to Harold’s old rival L.J. (Judd Hirsch), who went on to much greater success in the art world, and whose daughter Loretta (Rebecca Miller) continues to catch the eye of Danny, who grew up with her. The writer-director, with his cinematographer Robbie Ryan (“American Honey”), places his characters firmly inside a bubble of Manhattan flats, lakeside country houses and verdant college campuses, but they remain messy and complicated and capable of change. (And while any movie looks better on the big screen, of course, this one maintains its visual strength if you stream it on Netflix, who produced it.)
What’s left of the repertory-house community could easily double-bill this film with “Brad’s Status,” another bittersweet comedy that allows Ben Stiller to find the darker underbelly of the entitled-yuppie characters he has played so often. As always, Baumbach knows how to elicit sides of Stiller we don’t always get, and when Danny (who has kept his feelings tamped way, way down) and Matthew finally release their resentments in a drug-fueled showdown, it’s achingly hilarious.
Hoffman gets one of his best roles in years, as an uncompromisingly cantankerous and solipsistic artist who should probably never had children in the first place; it’s a blisteringly unsentimental yet recognizably funny piece of work. And after watching Elizabeth Marvel conquer D.C. politics on both “House of Cards” and “Homeland,” she’s mesmerizing as a woman with remarkable depths, despite having spent a lifetime hiding her light.
Baumbach’s films may reflect a prickly brand of humanism, but they’re humane all the same. In an era of untrammeled cynicism, each new release feels like an all-too-brief moment of hope.