In temperament and technique, the writer-director Noah Baumbach occupies a niche exactly between Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. Baumbach’s films are almost all about his own tribe of neurotic upper-middle-class white New Yorkers, but while he has a more novelistic distance on his characters than Allen, his visual style is less antic and whimsical — more traditional — than Anderson’s.
Baumbach’s a rigorous student of human nature, but he’s not a formalist, and his films have breathed more and more easily as he’s matured. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is one of his best.
In fact, the worst thing about the movie is that title, which shares with Anderson’s oeuvre an over-reliance on borrowed J.D. Salinger-isms. There’s also a difficult patriarch and three grown, stress-fractured children, but instead of the Glass family or Anderson’s Tenenbaums, we have the Meyerowitzes, and the patriarch — an aging downtown artist and full-blown narcissist — is played by Dustin Hoffman.
Hoffman hasn’t had a role this juicy in some time, and Harold Meyerowitz could almost be Benjamin Braddock from “The Graduate” 50 years on, if he’d dropped out, picked up Mrs. Robinson’s taste for art, and gone to ground in SoHo. The lead characters of “The Meyerowitz Stories” are his two sons (by different mothers), hyper-successful Left Coast realtor Matthew (Baumbach veteran Ben Stiller) and nominal failure Danny (Adam Sandler), who once showed promise as a musician but became a house-husband to a woman who has since left him.
As I said, they’re the leads, but Harold keeps barging into the frame. An aging-verging-on-elderly sculptor, he has a way of turning every conversation back to himself — his bitterness over a stalled career, the way his children have disappointed him, what he had for lunch — and you feel yourself bonded to the sons as their heads explode in slow-motion. There’s a sister, Jean, played by the wily actress Elizabeth Marvel, but she has mostly opted out for the role of repressed, dutiful daughter. (Mostly, I say, which counts for a lot in Baumbach’s world.)
The movie charts a couple of months in the family’s life, as Harold makes a few critical decisions and his children quietly gnash their teeth. Many moviegoers of a certain age might read this and ask, Why should I pay for something I can get at home for free? And to them I say, well, it’s a Netflix pickup and is available for streaming as of Friday, as well as appearing at the Kendall Square Cinema for a week, so it’s almost free. And it will give you some dark, knowing laughs about things that usually keep us lying awake at night.
But, other than that, here’s why. Sandler deigns to give a performance as an actual human being about once a decade or so, and this is one of the good ones: Danny is every over-looked child bowing his head in fealty while roaring inside. If you saw the recent “Brad’s Status,” with Stiller playing a variation on Sandler’s role as the mid-life screw-up husband and father, you’ll appreciate his pricklier, funnier take on the Good Son.
Baumbach is still hashing out his issues with mom and dad — this is the guy who based “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) on his own parents, remember? — but something has loosened him up in recent years, perhaps his relationship with leading lady Greta Gerwig, and “The Meyerowitz Stories” at times has the enjoyable crowded-elevator vibe of 2015’s “Mistress America.” Good and great actors keep turning up: Emma Thompson, hilarious as Harold’s boozy third or fourth wife; Judd Hirsch as Harold’s lifelong downtown rival; Candice Bergen as Matt’s mother; Grace van Patten as Danny’s college-bound daughter; Sigourney Weaver as herself.
But it’s Hoffman’s Harold you keep coming back to, an unmovable object of pure ego in a world that has long since passed him by. Baumbach works out every possible triangulation of resentment and forgiveness between the two half-brothers, and there’s a memorably funny art opening that devolves into fisticuffs and shameless blubbering. But the film’s emotional undercurrent is both tender and insistent. We are as our fathers sculpted us, says “The Meyerowitz Stories,” and we spend a lifetime learning to move and breathe on our own.
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED)
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Marvel, Emma Thompson. At Kendall Square. 112 minutes. Unrated (as R: language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.