“The Meyorwitz Stories (New and Selected)” gives us an Adam Sandler removed from his natural habitat — lowbrow comedy — and divorced from the vast dead weight that is his onscreen entourage.
There’s no David Spade, no Colin Quinn, no Dan Patrick cameo.
He doesn’t mug for the camera, doesn’t come off as delusional about his looks, his athletic skills or the sort of woman who might be paired up with him, sans comic film stardom. Jennifer Aniston doesn’t play his wife, in other words.
He still sings, still skips shaving and wears shorts in most scenes. But I guess even writer-director Noah Baumbach has to make the odd concession.
Sandler plays Danny, an unhappy, about-to-divorce son who grew up in the shadow of a haughty, egomaniacal yet frustrated New York sculptor and professor (Dustin Hoffman), a son whose pride and joy (Grace Van Patten) is an aspiring filmmaker headed off to college.
But when they visit his pretentious, oft-married and pontificating father and Dad’s latest wife — a tippling hippie (Emma Thompson) — Danny’s frustrated life’s origins become clear. The old man could never stand for anybody else to share the spotlight, never treated any child (Elizabeth Marvel plays Jean, Danny’s shrinking/shrunken violet sister) with anything other than dismissive tolerance.
Retired, Harold Meyorwitz still takes offense at the faintest slight to his own importance, be it from his former school, his peers or the art world and culture in general.
He prattles on endlessly about a rumored offer of a show, “a retrospective would be a real feather in my hat…I think I’m doing my best work,” and then we see his little wooden assemblages and wonder which interstate motel chain would find them worth mass-producing.
There’s talk of selling all the work, and their roomy New York townhouse, to gay fans of the work who feed dad’s self-absorbed ego, but do nothing for Danny, who never took his ability to compose little family ditties at the piano anywhere.
There’s another son by a different mother who escaped from Harold’s shadow and got away from his influence. Matthew (Ben Stiller) is a West Coast wealth manager to the stars (Adam Driver plays a rock star client). He drops back into Harold’s orbit, but is immune to his put-downs.
“I keep thinking I can handle you.”
The filmmaker daughter/granddaughter is fond of showing herself nude in sexual situations in her nonsensical student films. There’s a rival’s (Judd Hirsch) art opening in which Harold storms out in a huff, but not before Sigourney Weaver says “Hello,” which to Harold reinforces his importance in the world.
And a crisis throws them all together for an extended period where old schisms are (partially) healed and misunderstandings give way to bonding. Sort of.
So “Meyorwitz” is Adam Sandler stuffed into a Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg,” “Frances Ha”) world filled with chattering Baumbach characters –self-obsessed, navel-gazing New York Jews. Sandler holds his own, with the occasional cute song, the odd “Punch Drunk Love” explosion of temper, and fits right in with the likes of Stiller, Hoffman and Thompson.
Which is more screen effort than he’s shown in decades.
It’s light and occasionally hard to follow, with might-be-funny exchanges smothered by all the talking over one another. It’s also perfectly watchable, a real novelty in the Sandler canon if nothing really new for Baumbach.
“Meyorwitz” is also insular, insufferably self-involved, like its patriarch, and a bit wearing, like lesser Baumbach (“Margot at the Wedding,” “Mistress America”).
The fact that it’s on Netflix makes the nearly two hour run time of this 90 minute dramedy far easier to take. Yes, we’ve seen Adam Sandler roll up his sleeves and prove he belongs in a smarter, edgier picture. And?
Cast: Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Judd Hirsch
Credits: Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:52