In his own way, Harold Meyerowitz belongs in cinema's pantheon of toxic fathers, alongside Darth Vader. The former, though, is really more funny than frightening.
To the viewer, that is. His adult children (played by Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Elizabeth Marvel) aren't laughing. In The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), they bear the obvious emotional scars of growing up in the orbit of a self-absorbed, low-grade celebrity father (Dustin Hoffman), who's now lost his modest fame and influence.
This is tricky territory for comedy, but it's something of a specialty for director Noah Baumbach, who worked similar themes to great success in The Squid and the Whale (remember Jeff Daniels' infamous ping-pong match?).
Baumbach makes these stories work by embellishing them with his keen eye for anthropological detail — high-achieving New York families who measure themselves with academic and artistic credentials, leading to internalized family competitions as destructive as they are unacknowledged.
Hoffman is the Meyerowitz paterfamilias, an almost-famous sculptor who looks like a statue himself — Hoffman moves stiffly, stands erect, his hair swept and styled and sprayed to immobility, his impassive face like a stone carving. His heart may be marble as well, and its legacy is a brood of thirtysomething children still desperate to please him, still clamoring for the morsel of affection that never comes.
When Harold falls down and sustains a minor injury, they gather at his Manhattan apartment, and what follows is like King Lear by way of Moss Hart. Baumbach frames the action as a Broadway comedy, a rapid-fire procession of telling gestures (uncomfortable hugs, feigned kisses), whispered asides ("She's bombed!"), and snippets of dialogue ("We met at a fund-raiser for Chuck Schumer"), all of which contribute to the director's vivid and amusing portraiture.
Baumbach and Hoffman conspire to make us laugh at Meyerowitz's microaggressions — though Harold plays at being impervious to everything but himself, we see that he senses his offspring's vulnerabilities and exploits them. He chides Danny (Sandler), a house husband now facing divorce, for not having money. He mocks financier son Matthew (Stiller) for having too much of it. He is casually cruel to them, cruelly indifferent to daughter Eliza (Marvel).
Title cards divide the picture into fourths. Three segments examine each of the children in the context of their relationship with their dad, the fourth section finds the children gathered at his bedside, where smoldering resentments suddenly find oxygen and flare.
It's not a movie about healing and reconciliation, but some of that happens. The children learn, and move on, even if old Harold holds tight to his delusions. It's he, after all, who says: "I think the Knicks will make it interesting this year."