After essentially creating the concept of “binge-watching” by dropping full seasons of prestige television into viewers’ living rooms, Netflix has recently started to offer more portion-controlled viewing options as well, funding original films like “Beasts of No Nation” and “Deidra & Laney Rob a Train.”
On the spectrum of good ideas the company has had (which has on the high end “Bojack Horseman” and the low point being the failed spin-off company Qwikster), I say throwing money at talented filmmakers to create small, one-off films and pumping them directly into people’s homes is a great idea. It’s like, a Millie Bobby Brown-level great idea.
The company is ramping up its investment in feature films, having released one in 2015, 12 in 2016, and 20 so far in 2017, with five more to go before the end of the year.
One of those, available Oct. 13 on the streaming subscription service and opening in select theaters for a brief Oscar-qualifying run, is “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).”
The title is long enough to make it feel comfortable in the Netflix catalogue, even if the film itself is a fraction of the length of “Stranger Things.” But since most viewers won’t have to ever verbalize the title like they would when buying theater tickets -- they’ll just see a picture of Adam Sandler or Dustin Hoffman and they’ll click it -- the long title shouldn’t be a problem.
I’m fascinated by how these Netflix movies work. Straight-to-video films have a long history of stigma that I think will change the more of these come out, and the more that they have casts like this one: Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson. Adam Driver and Sigourney Weaver even show up in this thing (and they're delightful, by the way).
For me, the movie is a total winner. And it works precisely because it mixes like a mad scientist two cinematic elements I often find off-putting: indie dramedies about wealthy people and Adam Sandler.
Dustin Hoffman plays Harold, the serially re-married patriarch of the Meyerowitz family. His career as a sculpture artist may not have lived up to his own ambitions, but he is too prideful to ever admit it. Emma Thompson plays Maureen, his current wife who makes exotic foods like shark but undercooks it because she can’t stay sober long enough to follow a recipe.
Ben Stiller plays Harold's favorite child Matthew, a successful financier. Elizabeth Marvel plays Harold's invisible but faithful daughter Jean. And Adam Sandler plays Danny, Harold’s neglected and bitter other son.
I find Adam Sandler comedies annoying. I’m a total snob about them. Which is why I think his casting here is brilliant: The performers playing other members of the Meyerowitz family all feel like they belong in the kind of intellectual ensemble comedy that writer/director Noah Baumbach is most known for (and indeed, there are several repeat players from his other films here). But Danny sticks out like a sore thumb in this family, just like Sandler sticks out in this cast.
And because the actor himself opens up and is present in the role, the vulnerability and humanness of the character stands out.
The film ends up being a quiet look into the concerns of an adult family who hasn’t fully dealt with a number of things together, and whose perceptions of each other may be incomplete. It’s a moving portrait of characters who feel real.
Everybody is good in their roles. Other than Sandler, Stiller is also exceptional, and the performance that has stayed with me a lot is Hoffman’s. There’s so much angst and vulnerability underneath Harold’s grumpy stiffness, and Hoffman has more than enough acting chops to put it all onscreen.
This movie has a secret weapon, too, and it’s one that I hope Netflix will give a proper release of its own: That is, its soundtrack. The score is entirely piano-based, composed and performed by the exact perfect choice for this movie: Randy Newman. The sardonic sweetness of the Meyerowitz family is straight out of a Newman album. And the singer’s 1972 song "Old Man," from his "Sail Away" album, plays over the end credits, summing up perfectly every emotional loose end of the film.
I’m looking forward to seeing the film again, if only to see it with the knowledge that all the music is coming from Randy Newman’s fingers (and heart).
As much as I’m glad a movie like “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” will simply appear in people’s living rooms without them having to do anything, I’m nervous. This is the kind of thing that could slip through the cracks of people’s “watch lists,” which Netflix has reason to keep long, longer than customers will ever get through, so that they keep paying.
I hope people see this one. And I hope that come awards season, it will be remembered. No one will know if this movie “did well,” as Netflix doesn’t report on viewing numbers. So unless it gets some awards, or some word-of-mouth buzz, it could slip silently away into the ones and zeroes of your internet movie box, sitting unaccessed on some computer farm in Ohio.
Much like the lyrics to “Old Man,” actually.
Can you hear me?
Can you hear me?
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson
Running time: 1 hour, 50 min
Rating: Not rated, but contains adult language and situations and some sexuality/nudity