The Squid and the Whale, an earlier feature from writer-director Noah Baumbach, centers on two boys navigating their parents’ messy separation in 1980s Brooklyn. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) could be those boys grown up.
Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is the patriarch in question, a briefly renowned sculptor now coasting on the fumes of his reputation and obsessing over every indication (imagined and otherwise) of his current status in the art world. (That the Whitney Museum of American Art seems to have misplaced one of his pieces is not encouraging.) Harold’s older son Danny (Adam Sandler) tends to his father’s narcissistic infatuations, even as he prepares to send his daughter (Grace Van Patten) off to college. Matthew (Ben Stiller), Harold’s younger son by another marriage, keeps his distance in Los Angeles, despite being the clearly favored child due to his success as a financial advisor. There is also a sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), but aside from a touching tangent at one point in the film, she gets far less attention. These three siblings and their father have established a fairly peaceful, if passive-aggressive, routine, but that gets disrupted when Harold suffers a health scare, forcing his kids to converge for a reunion largely defined by resentment.
The addendum to the movie’s title refers to its structure. Separated by wry title cards, the film is broken into distinct segments—chronological, yet divided to suggest that we’re not getting the whole picture of this family, only chosen moments. What these add up to is another darkly comic Baumbach depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics. The Meyerowitz Stories is funny and full of feeling, if somewhat lukewarm compared to his other efforts. It’s not quite as incisively bitter as The Squid and the Whale or Margot at the Wedding, nor as haphazardly hilarious as Frances Ha or Mistress America. The movie settles in nicely, if unremarkably, in between.
It does feature some strong performances. If Hoffman is a bit one-note (especially compared to Jeff Daniels’ deeply human version of this Baumbach character type in The Squid and the Whale), Sandler and Stiller turn in some subtle, skillful work, building from their own distinct, comic personas (anger on Sandler’s part, acerbity on Stiller’s). Baumbach’s dialogue is at times a bit stiff—feeling like a list of Big Things the characters must address—but his two lead actors invest it with stirring notes of sadness and distress. (This may be the first Sandler character you want to hug.) You fully believe Sandler and Stiller as half brothers who’ve always felt that they’ve had a half father—and blamed the other for it.
Visually, The Meyerowitz Stories is missing the elegance of Baumbach’s last few features, particularly the black-and-white Frances Ha. But he and editor Jennifer Lame do come up with a clever device to trace the detente that develops between the siblings. In the first half of the film, scenes end abruptly—with a cut often coming in the midst of an angry line of dialogue—but the second half employs patient, quiet fades to black. I’m not sure I completely buy the happyish ending the movie sells, but I do like this formal trick it uses to try and close the deal.