It takes a second to register Adam Sandler’s performance in “The Meyerowitz Stories” as a serious role. After starring in movies like “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “Grown Ups,” his opening scene trying to find a parking space in New York City suggests a similar comedic vibe. However, when Sandler’s character, Danny Meyerowitz, sits down to dinner with his self-absorbed father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman, “Kramer vs. Kramer”), Sandler’s acting chops are on display. This is how “The Meyerowitz Stories” succeeds throughout its 112 minute runtime: A talented cast of mostly comedians telling the dramatic story of a highly dysfunctional family.
“The Meyerowitz Stories” is split into several chapters that focus on different members of the Meyerowitz family. The fraught relationship between Danny and his father occupies the first third of the movie. After divorcing the mother of Danny and his sister, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel, “House of Cards”), Harold remarried and had another son. He and his new wife neglected his other children in favor of their half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller, “Dodgeball”). Now all grown up, the three siblings have an awkward and distant relationship, suddenly brought together by Eliza (Grace van Patten), Danny’s daughter, starting film school in New York.
The second chapter focuses on the father-son dynamic between Matthew and Harold. Although Harold preferred Matthew to his other children, his obsession with reaching acclaim as a sculptor led to another parenting failure. He repeatedly brings up the memory of Matthew watching him construct a piece of art, only to finally realize it was actually Danny. After Harold suddenly ends up in the hospital with a debilitating brain injury, his three children must reconcile how much they owe to their lousy father.
The talented Dustin Hoffman shines as an aging artist unsatisfied with his professional accomplishments. Harold projects his failure to succeed onto his children, expressing disappointment with their life choices: Danny quits his musical career to be a stay-at-home dad, Matthew pursues a job in finance, Jean works at Xerox. Never quite able to come to terms with his irrelevancy in the art world, Harold crashes a party at the Museum of Modern Art to criticize an old colleague and spends an afternoon pitching his work to a couple more interested in buying his home. Throughout these arrogant and unlikeable aspects of his character, Hoffman provides an endearing quality. Even the manner in which he trots around Manhattan — pursuing a man he falsely accuses of stealing his coat or ditching art galas — reveals Harold’s longing to catch up to his dreams.
The rest of the ensemble adds their own charm to the film. Emma Thompson (“Love Actually”) as Harold’s alcoholic fourth wife, Maureen, puts a funny spin on a struggling alcoholic. Ben Stiller tones down his performance to produce a convincing, humorous repartee between estranged siblings. Grace Van Patten shows a boldness in her take on Eliza, building off Sandler’s efforts to make a memorable father-daughter bond.
“The Meyerowitz Stories” may deal with heavy subject matter, but the natural lightheartedness and charisma of its comedic cast makes the film more digestible, displaying the powerful combination of a well-written script and comedians cast against-type.