Family. Love it or leave it, or both. No group is closer, yet no group drives people crazier, causing them to feel like complete outsiders. It both hurts and makes it possible for us to heal.
Funny, moving and psychologically complex, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is the latest examination by writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “While We're Young”) of the intricate paradoxes of dysfunctional family dynamics, and it ranks with the best.
Starring an uncompromising Dustin Hoffman as a self-important sacred monster father and Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler as the adult sons still struggling with his influence, “Meyerowitz” is graced with Baumbach’s acute observations of human behavior.
The filmmaker expertly skewers those who hunger for gourmet hummus and vacations on Easter Island yet seethe with half-buried resentments and discontent. “I wanted to write about that point where you're midway through your life, where you're a parent and have a parent,” Baumbach said when the film debuted at Cannes, “how these old things like family myth and pathology can define you.”
But these protagonists, and the movie’s handful of other characters, are the opposite of caricatures. Created with texture and specificity, they are thoroughly imagined and fully written, people whose reality is never in doubt.
Because of that, “Meyerowitz” feels very much from the heart. It has an unexpected maturity and warmth, a compassion that seems to reflect Baumbach’s desire to dig as deeply as he can into the myriad conundrums of family life. And, as noted, it is often quite funny.
The Meyerowitzs are a New York family, big Mets fans, if it comes to that, and their dialogue comes at us thick and fast, throwing us into the middle of a give and take that has gone on for decades.
Met first is oldest son Danny (Sandler), introduced in a classic Manhattan occupation, frantically looking for a parking space with daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten), headed out to her freshman year at Bard the next morning, in the car with him.
That is not the only transition in the Meyerowitz family. Danny and his unseen wife, Eliza's parents, have just gotten divorced, and Danny will be spending some time at his father's place until he figures out how to cope.
Though parking does not bring out the best in Danny, even this brief scene makes clear what is soon confirmed: He has been an excellent dad and has a strong relationship with his daughter, one he fears will inevitably change.
Bard, as it turns out, is where Danny's father, Harold (Hoffman), taught art for 33 years. Danny and Eliza are headed for dinner with Harold and his fourth wife, the catastrophically inebriated Maureen (an amusing Emma Thompson), plus Danny's sister, Jean (a quiet Elizabeth Marvel), and tranquility is not on the menu.
Impeccably played by an initially unrecognizable Hoffman, long-haired and bearded with a stiff gait, Harold is an accident that has already happened.
Pompous, narcissistic, oblivious, he is a specialist in making things difficult, someone who takes immediate offense at all slights, real or otherwise, giving him an inevitable similarity to Jeff Daniels' father character in "Squid."
A sculptor in addition to teaching at Bard, Harold is consumed by rivalry with his peers, insulted at the possibility of being in a group show and insistent that the Whitney Museum purchased one of his pieces once upon a time, though the museum doesn't seem to know where it is.
Danny, on the other hand, though a talented musician (a duet he sings with Eliza is a delight), has not focused on achievement. He was a house husband during his marriage, and the only thing he's ever wanted, his father's approval, has never come his way.
Sandler's performance is, frankly, a revelation. Almost nothing he has done, not even his fine work in “Punch-Drunk Love,” prepares you for the moving, completely unmannered and heartfelt portrait he creates here.
With Maureen off to Easter Island, Danny is looking forward to spending some time living alone with his father, hoping for the positive attention he never got. It does not turn out that way.
For one thing, Harold becomes obsessed with his rivalry with L.J. Shapiro (a surprising Judd Hirsch), a friend who is getting a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, an event that leads to a black comic gem of a sequence.
For another, Danny’s half brother Matthew (Stiller) is coming to New York from Los Angeles with issues of his own. A money manager with celebrity clients (Adam Driver deftly plays one), Matthew feels Harold is contemptuous of his success. He thinks he's gotten over all this, but proximity to his father is trickier than he imagines.
Though “Meyerowitz’s” plot has a number of unexpected maneuvers up its sleeve, including wacky farce elements, it’s important to remember that it’s not story so much as the dynamics among personalities, the rhythms of language, that need to be paid attention to here.
“We all have this gap between who we are and who we think we are, between who we are and the dream of who we might be, who we want to be,” Baumbach said at Cannes. Watching this all play out for the Meyerowitz clan is just one of the pleasures this splendid film provides.
‘The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)’
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: starts Oct. 13 at Landmark, West L.A.; Laemmle NoHo 7, North Hollywood; also streaming on Netflix