Near the end of Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (currently playing at the New York Film Festival and set to premiere on Netflix on October 13th), Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller square off in an emotional, physical, big scene that ends with a huge comedic payoff. Now, this is going to sound nuts, but it kind of felt like I was watching some weird version of the scene in Heat when De Niro and Pacino finally share a scene together – only for mainstream comedy stars. According to Box Office Mojo, if we’re only talking about actors mostly known for comedy, these two are in the top five of the most financially successful comedy stars of all time. And here they are squaring off in a real scene for the first time. Yes, I realize Ben Stiller had small roles in Happy Gilmore and Funny People (the latter basically being archival footage), but this is the first time these two have truly costarred in a film together and it’s fascinating.
Here’s a tangent: I’m getting a little tired of people saying, “Adam Sandler is actually a great actor,” like it’s some sort of divine proclamation after every time he actually decides to apply himself. (Full admission: I have been guilty of this so do not tweet at me examples.) But, yes, of course he’s a good actor. We all know that now. He’s been good in a lot of things that I’m not going to list because we don’t need to see the word “Punch” again in a piece about Adam Sandler. And it’s not just his serious roles, he’s even really good in stuff like The Wedding Singer. He just chooses to make a lot of dreck because he can hang out with his friends and make a lot of money in the process. It’s hard to blame him. We can certainly be disappointed in him for our own selfish reasons as I know that I sure am; we could have had dozens of performances by now just like the one we get here in The Meyerowitz Stories. And, yes, Sandler is excellent in this movie. It’s arguably his best performance to date. (I will be the one arguing that it is.) Hey, did you know he’s a good actor?
Sandler plays Danny, a loving father to Eliza (Grace Van Patten), who hasn’t done much with his life except be, by all accounts, a pretty good stay-at-home dad. After a divorce, Danny briefly moves in with his failed-artist father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), and Harold’s current wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson). Danny and Harold have a conflicted relationship: they can sit around and laugh while watching Legal Eagles together (Legal Eagles!), but Danny knows Harold thinks he’s a failure and that Harold loves his half-brother, Matthew, much more.
The Meyerowitz Stories is divided into chapters, the first about Danny. The second chapter is about Matthew, played by Stiller (no stranger to Baumbach movies and also really great here). Matthew is a great success out in Los Angeles, but in the word of business and not as an artist, so he also doesn’t get the approval from his father that he feels he deserves (at least, to his face). Matthew doesn’t have much of a relationship with his half-brother Danny, or his half-sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) – Matthew has a different mother than Danny and Jean and they barely ever lived together as children. It’s this dynamic that drives the story in the third chapter.
And the third chapter brings everyone together following a family crises. There are awkward confrontations and a strange bonding moment between Danny and Matthew as the two vandalize a car together as revenge for an ugly incident that had happened years before (which leads to a really great scene with Jean). And then, as mentioned in the first paragraph, we get “the scene,” which almost feels like the result of 25 years of rage fueled by a combination of box office success and a lack of critical approval.
It can be easy to dismiss Sandler and, to a lesser extent, Stiller for some of their work over the last 25 years. (Stiller has obviously made some pretty great movies.) But, like it or not, these two are comedic heavyweights when it comes to entertaining the masses. But what’s fortunate, for us, is that these two teamed up for a movie and performances like this. We could have gotten something really awful. Just think about it for a second – just think of all the horrible ideas that could lead to these two starring in a movie together. Instead, we get both of them giving two of their finest performances to date. Let’s just hope Baumbach and Sandler keep working together, because it’s a pretty special combination.
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