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Seriously, Adam Sandler Triumphs in “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”

Adam Sandler’s core as a performer has always been his self-loathing. In his best comedies, he weaponizes it with humiliating ruthlessness. (In his worst ones, it wafts pathetically off him like the day-after stink of a drunkard.) Now, he’s given the performance of his life in Noah Baumbach’s free-spirited and likable The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and it feels like something momentous and new for the actor. Whereas Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love used Sandler’s existing persona brilliantly to create an extreme and beautifully self-aware version of an Adam Sandler Movie, Baumbach successfully brings Sandler into the real world without ever quite letting him lose his Adam Sandler–ness.

As the title suggests, Meyerowitz is a self-consciously ambling comedy — the short-story-collection-esque title is merely a cute affectation, as the film isn’t adapted from anything — one exploring the relationship between two very different brothers and their oddball father. Sandler is the unemployed, divorced layabout, Ben Stiller the high-powered accountant to the stars, and Dustin Hoffman is their failed-artist father. So, we’ve got Sandler plus Stiller plus Hoffman, and somehow the result is not a comic ham salad; Baumbach and his actors deserve all the credit in the world for keeping the shtickiness to a minimum.

Sandler internalizes his self-loathing as Danny Meyerowitz, a neurotic who has amounted to very little in this world. As Danny tries to raise his precocious college-bound daughter (a wonderful Grace Van Patten) and bond with his judgmental, old-school–New York art-elite dad, Harold, The Meyerowitz Stories offers a compelling look at people caught in the gravitational pull of a world where fame is ever-present but forever relative. Harold is largely a nobody these days, but he knows all sorts of people who are or were big. Plus, he himself has had a couple of successful pieces over the years, which he thinks gives him some currency. Is Harold a failure, or a man of unimpeachable integrity? Since inferiority complexes and superiority complexes usually come bundled together, the answer, even to him, is a little of both.

Anyway, being this guy’s kid was about as fun as you might imagine. While Danny has mostly failed at life, his half-brother Matthew (Stiller) has succeeded aggressively, attempting to shed the shackles of his past by becoming a high-powered money manager. Stiller, too, is excellent playing a bit out of his comfort zone; this is his third film with Baumbach, who understands how to use the star in interesting ways. Elizabeth Marvel also shines as Jean, the third sibling, who has often had to shrink into the background during the alpha struggle between temperamental brothers. Jean is always around, but the fact that the film’s structure is so thoroughly dominated by the two brothers and their father can be bothersome — though it’s also clear that Baumbach is commenting on the way that girls often get ignored in these kinds of families. In the end, the movie hints that she might be the most talented of all of them.

The Meyerowitz Stories doesn’t quite have the drive and stylistic panache of other recent Baumbach efforts, but it makes up for that with sincerity, as well as moments of subtle satirical genius. The director perfectly captures the passive-aggressive and sometimes genuinely aggressive-aggressive back-and-forth between siblings and parents and children, plus the unstated hierarchies of the New York intelligentsia. When Hoffman attends a MOMA event for an old pal who eventually became an art-world big shot, the stew of feelings — entitlement, envy, judgment, regret — that plays across his face and in his words is nearly heartbreaking. That scene also contains one exchange that I have actually witnessed in real life: the pathetic sight of a famous artist walking past a curator in mid-conversation and casually saying, “I’m not talking to you,” thereby guaranteeing that the curator will stop whatever he’s doing and go talk to the artist. This movie is so well-observed, it’s scary.

The Meyerowitz Stories
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Netflix
Opens October 13, IFC Center
Premieres on Netflix October 13

 

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Ben Stiller and Mike White’s “Brad’s Status” Is Scarier Than Most Horror Movies

Mike White’s father-and-son college-trip comedy-drama Brad’s Status is legitimately more frightening than anything in It. Quite aside from the fact that real life is always scarier than monsters from the beyond, the writer-director’s deep understanding of envy, entitlement, and embarrassment has never been more nightmarishly effective. But don’t expect one of those broad humiliation comedies where the audience cringes and laughs as the characters make increasingly bigger asses of themselves; those movies usually provide some sort of catharsis. Brad’s Status remains grounded in reality — it’s gentle, human, and unresolved. I loved it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it again.

“I felt like the world was rubbing my nose in something,” observes Brad (Ben Stiller), a reasonably well-off owner of his own nonprofit company, early in the film. He’s married to a beautiful and happy wife (Jenna Fischer), with a brilliant teen son (an excellent Austin Abrams) preparing to apply to colleges, and yet he’s mired in self-loathing and doubt, thanks to the fact that his best friends from college have all seemingly lapped him in life: Craig (Michael Sheen) is a former White House staffer who’s now an acclaimed author and TV talking head; Billy (Jemaine Clement) is a former tech bro who retired young and now lives in Hawaii, surfing and leading a chill, polyamorous existence with two perpetually bikini-clad blondes; Jason (Luke Wilson) is an investment banker who flies around in his own jet and plays oligarch; Nick (White) is a celebrity whose latest home was just in Architectural Digest. As Brad looks around at his own decidedly un–Architectural Digest–worthy existence, everything feels like a mistake or an obstacle. Did his wife’s general contentment stifle his ambition? Did his desire to do good kill his chances at money and success? And what was he thinking moving to Sacramento?

Some years ago, Stiller blew a hefty wad of studio money and goodwill on an ill-advised adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. This is the Walter Mitty movie he should have made. He nails the part of a guy whose dreams have corroded into regrets, and who refuses to face the world as it is — in all its messiness and uncertainty and, yes, beauty.

The character’s despair, however, is largely illusory, and his thoughts can turn on a dime. When he discovers that his son Troy’s college counselor thinks the boy, a musical prodigy, can get into Harvard, Brad’s vision of his friends’ lives immediately changes; he starts imagining that they’re actually unhappy — that their bratty, entitled kids pale in comparison to the obviously fame-bound Troy. Regardless of whether he’s mired in gloom or giddy with pride, Brad can never shake off the sense of competition. He continues to define his life in terms of how he stacks up against others.

That leads him, predictably, into some squirm-worthy situations: a futile attempt to upgrade his economy seat to business class in order to impress his son; a brief freak-out at the Harvard admissions office when Troy’s interview doesn’t go as planned; an indulgent wallow into his own problems when he meets up with his son’s friends; a brief fantasy about pulling a Billy and running off to Hawaii with Troy’s beautiful female pals. At times, it all feels like it’s leading to a big, climactic clusterfuck — a final, hilarious interrogation and humiliation of Brad, in which all his fears will be aired out in public. But White has something different on his mind: He never lets things go totally crazy. He pulls back at just the right moments. Refusing to turn Brad into an object of ridicule in turn renders the film even scarier, and more tense. It’s funny, and it’s terrifying, because it’s all so sickeningly honest.

Brad’s Status
Written and directed by Mike White
Amazon Studios
Now playing, AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13

 

 

 

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TWICE AS FUNNY

Doing satire is a risky proposition. Courting dark or political themes without stumbling into bad taste is a master’s art. But there are those who have built entire bodies of work around the form, two of whom might humor us with their thoughts on the matter. There’s author George Saunders, whose writing elaborates the evils of consumerism and the motivations of genocide while still getting laughs. Then there’s actor and funny man Ben Stiller, star of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — based on the 1939 James Thurber short story of the same title — who made a name for himself with his bleak comic style. Both Saunders and Stiller will be on hand tonight at McNally Jackson to talk about their careers as humorists, a conversation supplemented with clips from Stiller’s film, readings of Saunders’s work, and an audience Q&A. Go check it out, is our modest proposal.

Fri., Jan. 10, 7 p.m., 2014

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Glows with Life

In the 20 years since Reality Bites, his directorial debut, Ben Stiller has metastasized from sketch comedy lunatic to Generation X darling to blockbuster king. Among the funny men — most of whom have calcified into cliques (yawn, Anchorman 2) — he’s the last of the triple-threat writer/director/stars, and the only one who would make a film as earnest, brave and real as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Yet while Zoolander and Tropic Thunder have clawed into the comedy canon, Stiller has money, but no respect. Unlike critical darling Judd Apatow, he’s still stuck at the dweebs’ table just as he was in 1994 when he asked Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer, “Have I stepped over some line in the sands of coolness with you?”

Like the ’90s, Stiller loves sarcasm — he even cast himself as the most handsome man in the world — but his films are sincere within their worlds: Derek Zoolander really is a gorgeous model, Tropic Thunder‘s Kirk Lazarus is invested in his blackface, and even Troy Dyer aches for a connection he isn’t mature enough to handle. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty drops all the irony. The story of a shy magazine employee with a magnificent imagination, it’s an uplifting, big-hearted crowd-pleaser. Which in today’s Hollywood where every superhero has a standing Thursday appointment with a therapist makes it defiantly uncool.

The disaffectedness Stiller popularized in Reality Bites is biting him in the ass. Now, we’re all Troy Dyer, instantly suspicious of anything that wants to make us feel.

Stiller has the rare ability to grow or shrink his presence onscreen as the part demands, and he makes Mitty a truly ordinary everyman. He’s not a victimized wimp or a bumbling Focker, just a guy on the street who quietly fears he’s letting life slip through his fingers. In his head, Stiller’s Mitty daydreams of rescuing puppies and making women swoon. At work, he gets overlooked by his dream girl (a charmingly mellow Kristen Wiig) and undermined by his new boss, played by Adam Scott in a beard so fake it looks like a squirrel clinging to his chin.

Scott’s facial hair is this world’s only false note. Most comedies are populated by babes and schlubs who look like refugees from Budweiser ads, and they have fabulous jobs and even more fabulous apartments,. The people around Walter Mitty have crows feet and messy hair. They work at KFC and Nabisco and go home to small walk-ups where they have to squeeze past each other in the kitchen.

It doesn’t sound revolutionary until you realize no other comedian is doing it — even the ones who think they are. When Judd Apatow tries to make something “honest,” he gives us a hot, rich married couple squabbling over cupcakes, while Adam Sandler’s idea of normal life is a McMansion and courtside tickets to the Lakers. And don’t get me started on Woody Allen, who thinks all poor people come equipped with Jersey accents and wife-beaters — in San Francisco.

As in the original James Thurber short story, Mitty dreams he’s leading a more exciting life – a Hollywood fantasy. Here, he imagines larger-than-life heroes and toughs in the visual language of film: The leaves swirl, the music quickens, and his eyes burn. This is a movie about a guy who wishes his reality was like the movies, which is just one half-step away from Tropic Thunder, a movie about movie-makers who don’t know their reality is real. Mitty’s fantasies even look like Tropic Thunder‘s reality — when he imagines himself as a frost-bitten explorer wooing Wiig with his “poetry falcon,” he’s looks like he’s strutted out of his character Tugg Speedman’s moronic blockbuster Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown. Later, he imagines he’s starring in a romantic redo of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but because Mitty hasn’t actually seen the film, he pictures his old man babyface all wrong.

Eventually Mitty sets out on a real adventure to track down wild-man photographer Sean Penn, who has more badass creases in his face than a topographical map of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull, one of the stops on Mitty’s trek.

The film thrills at this quest: The National Geographic-quality vistas are almost too distractingly beautiful, the indie ballads one synthesizer chord short of emotional overkill. Yet Stiller balances his big ambitions with small, grounded truths. O his way to the volcano, a flock of crows assembles itself into a Kristen Wiig’s face, but after the explosion, he goes to a Papa John’s and balances his checkbook. Globe trotting ain’t cheap.

It’s in these details that Walter Mitty glows with life. Stiller is a humanist with a keen eye for comic minutia. Even in a sweet moment when Mitty hugs a co-worker goodbye — something a lesser director would throw in for a cheap “awwwww” — he makes the men awkwardly shuffle a box out of the way. He keys in to what Thurber cautioned Samuel Goldwyn in 1947, the first time the Mitty story made it to film, that the tone “should be kept in a high romantic key, and should never descend to anything of a slapstick nature….The dreams will be funny simply and only because they are the true representations of the average man’s secret notions of his own great capabilities.”

Like Mitty, Ben Stiller dreams big. The problem is audiences don’t let him. We have a problem dividing Stiller the Actor — the paycheck-cashing doofus of Night at the Museum — from Stiller the Director, whose last film scored Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar nomination. (For a summer comedy!)

Stiller’s in his own Mitty-esque nightmare: While his character dreams of being in Tugg Speedman’s hits, he’s suffering through Tugg Speedman’s failures, making earnest flicks like the “full retard” Simple Jack and getting mocked for being sentimental. He’s both famous and forgotten, the best comedy director of his generation hiding in plain sight. As Penn advises him in a manly mano-y-mano, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” True. But it’s time we applaud Ben Stiller anyway.

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Touchy Feely Is as Tedious as Waiting in a Dentist’s Office

Just as tedious as waiting in a dentist’s office for an hour and a half, Lynn Shelton’s latest fumblingly cutesy outing ought to be her last. (Sadly it is not—she’s already wrapped production on a dark comedy starring Keira Knightley and Sam Rockwell.) Using a script instead of semi-improvised dialogue, her vanilla leads float through Seattle, alternately succeeding and being punished by their ability to heal others. Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a masseuse about to move in with her rebound boyfriend until she inexplicably develops a severe phobia of touching skin; her brother Paul’s (Josh Pais, a significantly less funny version of Ben Stiller’s “uptight schlub”) dental practice experiences a sudden turnaround after he fixes a patient’s rare jaw disease, and other sufferers aggressively flock to him for help. Worse than the goofy premise, Shelton fails to enliven the incredibly talk-heavy (but subtext-free) inaction with any sort of visual flair. The moments where Abby suddenly realizes how “gross” skin is are painfully bad, layering “scary” music (quavering orchestration in a minor key) over extreme close-ups of backs and thighs. (They’re also confusing—at first I thought she was afraid of getting old.) Ellen Page is completely wasted as Paul’s daughter, not given any juicy one-liners nor enough screen time to elicit empathy for her not-so-deeply entrenched inertia. The low-stakes dullness on display here is yet more evidence of an independent film scene that’s been overrun by producers who have no qualms about turning out low-budget versions of Hollywood rom-com dreck in the hopes of big returns on their investments. (Your Sister’s Sister was made for $125,000 and grossed $1.6 million.) Avoiding garbage like this is civic duty.

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Hollywood Farce He’s Way More Famous Than You Is Unhinged and Hilarious

A self-referential, insider farce about the hunger for Hollywood stardom, He’s Way More Famous Than You is—like its leading lady—as unhinged as it is hilarious. Still clinging to the fact that years earlier she costarred in The Squid and the Whale, Halley Feiffer (as herself) aims to reignite her faded career by producing a five-minute trailer for a 10-page treatment that will hopefully be developed at a film festival screenwriting lab. Feiffer reimagines herself as a drunken mess consumed only with recapturing the red carpet spotlight, and her plans to produce her semi-autobiographical work soon involve casting her gay wannabe-actor brother, Ryan (Ryan Spahn), enlisting as director Ryan’s boyfriend, Michael Urie (Urie, the film’s real director), competing for parts with Mamie Gummer, convincing Ralph Macchio to be her costar, seeking help for her alcoholism from Natasha Lyonne, and kidnapping Ben Stiller. Whether guzzling bottles of champagne through a straw or reenacting the death scene from The Outsiders in a crowded restaurant, Feiffer is a brazenly tasteless riot. And this comedy, rife with bonkers one-liners and laugh-out-loud absurdity—culminating with a finale that actually refers to child-abuse doc Capturing the Friedmans‘ “mysterious eroticism”—should, in a just world, solidify her A-list credentials.

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Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

After New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is through regulating sugar intake via soft drinks, he might want to consider the dubious, overstimulating effects of a film like Madagascar 3. Like a big-screen Big Gulp, this third installment of the billion-dollar animated franchise contains as much cinematic confection as an 85-minute movie can bear. It incorporates even more riotous movement and cacophonous sound than its predecessors, more characters than you can reasonably track, more locations than a Bourne film (Africa to Monte Carlo to Rome to London to New York), and an extra dimension (3-D, natch). The series’ third director (Shrek 2‘s Conrad Vernon joins original tandem Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath) gives us the same core four animals—lion Alex (Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), and giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer)—still looking for a way back home to the Central Park Zoo. They rejoin an anarchic tribe of penguins and monkeys for an extended detour through Europe, where they run afoul of Gallic animal-huntress Capitaine Chantel DuBois (a full-throttled Frances McDormand) and join a disheveled circus. Despite a steady barrage of sight gags and pop-culture references, the film works best when downshifted to good old-fashioned character development, particularly when establishing newcomers like Vitaly (Bryan Cranston), an embittered Siberian tiger, and Stefano (Martin Short) a dim-witted, eager-to-please sea lion. But when everyone teams up to give the circus an American-style upgrade, the results are Madagascar 3 in miniature: In lieu of finesse and high-wire elegance, there’s a torrent of jet packs, screaming lights, infinitely elasticized creatures, pyrotechnical bombast, and Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Big rush, empty calories. Fill ‘er up.

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The House of Blue Leaves Visits Unsunnyside, Queens

Spring cleaning hasn’t penetrated the gloom that pervades the Queens apartment of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. David Cromer, who directs this Broadway revival of the 1966 script, has made a career of tapping a particular vein of American melancholy. In shows such as The Adding Machine, Our Town, and Brighton Beach Memoirs, he has made misery shimmer, conjuring a shivery blend of tears and laughter. In this play, which takes place in a Sunnyside two-bedroom on the day of the Pope’s 1965 visit to New York, Cromer has sourced malaise even in the set, an unglamorous array of beers, books, pill bottles, lyric sheets, and windows criss-crossed with creaking metal grates.

It’s here that Artie Shaughnessy (Ben Stiller), a zookeeper and would-be songsmith, lives with his schizophrenic wife Bananas (Edie Falco) and disaffected teen son Ron (Christopher Abbott). In the apartment below lurks a floozy by the Dickensian name of Bunny Flingus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), with whom Artie hopes to elope to L.A. Into this mix flit three nuns, a movie star, a big-name director, a military policeman, an asylum orderly, and one heck of an improvised explosive device.

Such an agglomeration suggests farce, but Cromer has tamped down the comedy and sought out the sorrow at the core of every character, even those of the beer-drinking nuns. This focus deemphasizes some of Guare’s delicious absurdity, but it does tug at the heartstrings in a manner far more tuneful than Artie’s thumps on the piano keys.

None of the central performances is quite as fully realized as you might wish—Stiller, for example, captures the “dreaming boy” aspect of Artie, but not the loathing that drives him. Yet together they somehow harmonize, ably conveying Guare’s gentle, genial take on the pathos of unremarkable, everyday lives. “The famous ones,” sighs Bunny, “they’re the real people. We’re the creatures of their dreams.” But it’s these sad dreams that Cromer spends his waking life imagining.

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Flirting with Disaster

Dir. David O. Russell (1996).
Family hoo-hah is David O. Russell’s forte—never better than in the choreographed confusion of this nouveau screwball comedy, with Ben Stiller searching for his birth parents.

Wed., Feb. 9, 7 p.m., 2011

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Little Fockers and the Franchise of Diminishing Returns

Just in time for the whole family to file into the multiplex on a silent Christmas night when there’s nowhere else to go: a return to the magnified dysfunction of the Focker household, and the cozy holiday glow of some paychecking celebrities.

This began a decade ago in Meet the Parents, a diverting, focused, well-played degradation ceremony in which Ben Stiller’s male nurse, Gaylord “Greg” Focker, was put on constant self-defense by then-fiancée Pam’s Dad. Played with fierce decorum by Robert De Niro, the ex-CIA hardcase Jack Byrnes leveled loaded questions that backpedaled Greg into blurting things like: “You can milk just about anything with nipples.”

Stiller, with a fully intact returning cast, proves that he can even milk a premise. The third installment of the Focker franchise, Little Fockers plays out during the build-up to the fifth birthday party for the now-long-married Pam and Greg’s titular twins, integral to the movie only as pawns in the grown-up games. Jack, having gotten a glimpse of his own mortality, has reconciled himself to accepting Greg as the family’s “next-in-line” head. From the outset, the once-besieged mensch’s long struggle to establish his manhood seems nearly won. This détente lasts about as long as it takes Greg and Jack to sit down together at a dining room table, an environment fraught with hazard in all Focker films.

The elder Fockers, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand’s New Age Jews Roz and Bernie, are mercifully on the sidelines for much of Little Fockers. But adding to Greg’s stress is the appearance of Andi Garcia (Jessica Alba), an aggressively perky, flirtatious pharmaceuticals flack who wants him to be the face of a new boner pill. This comic rifle-on-the-wall goes off when Jack, his suspicions aroused, sneaks a “Sustengo” from a sample case for a pajama-tent sight gag and an “If you experience an erection lasting more than four hours” panic scene that has lost none of its impact since it appeared in I Think I Love My Wife three years ago.

Andi might pose a serious menace to the sanctity of the nuclear family were it not for the fact that she’s one of those farcically unbalanced twentysomething party sluts that the world outside of matrimony is full of according to American screen comedies. Challenging the Fockers’ fidelity from the other side is Pam’s multi-millionaire mystic ex-fiancé, Kevin (Owen Wilson, still hoarding the best lines). But he, too, poses no real threat, since the character of Pam (Teri Polo) has never had much existence of her own—she spends a goodly portion of Little Fockers quarantined in sickbed, and it’s doubtful anyone would notice if she didn’t come back, so focused is Fockers on the relationship between Greg and Jack. A scene where the two are confused for gay partners when scouting a posh “Early Human” kindergarten lets surface the subtext that has run through the Fockers trilogy.

Ghosts of New Hollywood haunt Little Fockers, which, in addition to featuring De Niro, Streisand, Hoffman, and Harvey Keitel in a throwaway appearance as a contractor, includes more or less explicit references to The French Connection, The Godfather, and Jaws—which are neither funny nor apposite, but evidently thought to be Boomer-recognizable. Another interesting note to students of cinematic Decline and Fall are the sops to the younger audience, including Google and YouTube punchlines. When television appeared, mainstream American film comedies treated the upstart competition as a target for contempt and fun—here, a closing-credits gag nails the “Slap Chop Rap” somebody probably forwarded you a year ago, as Fockers wheezes to catch up with meme faddism.

“We have to laugh at the stuff that makes us human,” explains Bernie Focker in the last reel. (SPOILER: Everybody learns to get along, and family supersedes horrifying personality disorders.) Bernie’s list includes expelling gas—and, presumably the rest of the film’s mildly desperate scrambling for bits: the lasagna-chunked vomit, the clumsy sexual slapstick, and a little of the old-school ethnic rivalry stuff that carried the last Fockers romp. (Jack, tracing the family tree, notes Greg’s preponderance of “Wandering peddlers and nameless peasants.”) Game performances and a couple of half-laughs, sure, but this is the screen comedy equivalent of the televised Yule log.