As the title suggests, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), is built around a literary device, its tale of the tensions and conflicts within a family split into individual sections, each starting with a title card and a fragment of an introductory sentence. This literary conceit seems an odd choice for a movie about a family that contains a sculptor, a musician and a filmmaker, but not a single writer, yet it serves its purpose. It's a film told in sketches and fragments, and the structure covers up gaps in the sometimes thin narrative.
Noah Baumbach gives this multi-angled look at a family that's more disassembled than dysfunctional. The only reason the Meyerowitzes aren't in conflict is because they've spent decades avoiding each other. Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is a veteran of the New York art scene, an almost-celebrated sculptor. His oldest son Danny (Adam Sandler) is a newly divorced musician (it's mentioned in several scenes that he's never held a job) relocating to New York to be close to his college-age daughter. Danny's sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel, in a remarkably repressed performance) struggles to find a creative outlet as a project manager at Xerox. Their half-brother Matthew (Ben Stiller) is the black sheep of the family, a successful financial adviser in Los Angeles who comes back to help his father sell his New York apartment and art collection. (The women mostly get short shrift: Emma Thompson is wasted as Harold's alcoholic wife, and Candice Bergen appears far too briefly as one of Thompson's predecessors.)
There's not really much of a story here; it's more of a collection of misunderstandings and mixed emotions trying to work themselves out. The Meyerowitz patriarch is slightly pretentious and of delicate ego; when he speaks, it sounds more like a recitation of carefully composed capsule reviews and well-rehearsed opinions. He's not alone. The characters often seem like they're not listening to each other because they're too busy warming up their own prepared pieces. Behind the miscommunication, the film slowly reveals a complex set of family dynamics, with Sandler and Stiller working their way around grievances real and imagined.
It would be easy to dismiss this as Woody Allen Lite, a story of self-absorbed New Yorkers working out their neuroses through lunch dates and stilted conversations set amidst familiar Manhattan settings. Baumbach doesn't have much of a gift for verbal humor, unless you think yelling profanities in traffic is the height of wit, but the film plays like a comedy mostly by virtue of Sandler and Stiller's welcome underplaying. There are also a few genuinely clever instances of visual humor, which are surprising for such a talk-heavy filmmaker.
The film is understated to a fault yet somehow also self-indulgent. (Baumbach throws in a few nods to his colleague in father-issue filmmaking Wes Anderson — there's a scene of someone in a Fantastic Mr. Fox mask, and Judd Hirsch appears as a rival artist wearing Bill Murray's wool hat from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).
But here's the strange thing: For all of its unmotivated emotions, narrative gaps and general sense of self-absorption, The Meyerowitz Stories works. It makes a few wrong turns and some of its comic efforts fall flat, but Baumbach and his cast are persistent, working their way through the missteps to create an honest account of a mixed (and mixed-up) family getting through the messy business of life.