Adam Sandler … Oscar nominee? After two awards season near misses with 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love and 2007’s Reign Over Me, the comedian could make the 2017 cut for Best Supporting Actor, and he has Noah Baumbach to thank. Since the writer-director’s latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), premiered at Cannes in May, raves have been pouring in for Sandler’s portrayal of Danny Meyerowitz, the easygoing adult son of a cantankerous New York artist (Dustin Hoffman) who struggles to get along with his type A half-brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller). Baumbach tells Yahoo Entertainment that his collaboration with Sandler, which premieres on Netflix on Oct. 13, was years in the making. “He reached out to me a few years ago and said, ‘If you have anything, I hope you’ll consider me.’ Sometimes actors say that to you and then you give them something, they pass on it, and then you’re enormously annoyed! But Adam was true to his word. He, Ben, and I had a lunch together, and then I went off and wrote the film.”
Based on that meal, Baumbach tailored each sibling to his stars, never even entertaining the thought of them switching roles. In writing Danny’s role, he specifically sought to tap into Sandler’s sensitivity, which isn’t always glimpsed in the star’s raucous comedies, from Billy Madison to The Ridiculous 6. Giving an actor best known for broadly comic parts a chance to show his serious side is a longstanding Baumbach tradition. He did the same thing for Stiller with 2010’s Greenberg, as well as Jack Black in 2007’s Margot at the Wedding. “It’s just the right match of performer and part,” Baumbach says. “There’s a part of me that feels like all of my movies are comedies, or at least I set out thinking of them that way, even if they transform along the way. The scenes aren’t played for laughs, but there’s humor embedded in them. I want to have actors with real humor in them; they don’t necessarily have to be comic icons like these guys.”
There is one scene in Meyerowitz where Baumbach intentionally wanted to remind audiences of his stars’ goofier movies. Midway through the film, Danny and Matthew have a spirited, if awkward, fistfight that immediately brings to mind Sandler’s legendary brawl with Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore, the hit 1996 comedy that also features Stiller in a small cameo. “That’s a movie that had these guys together, kind of, for the first time. And they don’t actually appear in this movie together until just past the halfway mark, so there’s an expectation for the audience going into a movie with these two actors in it.” And if Sandler’s punches appear a little slower than they were in his Gilmore heyday, that ties into the film’s overarching theme of the brothers confronting middle age, just as their father is facing his own mortality. “Not all my movies benefit from having actors you’ve grown up with,” Baumbach muses. “But with something like Meyerowitz, I feel like whatever associations people are bringing into the theater with them will be good, and kind of deepen the moment.”
Placed on the arc of Baumbach’s career, The Meyerowitz Stories could be interpreted as a spiritual sequel to 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, with Stiller and Sandler as the grown-up versions of the brothers that Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline play in that movie, while Hoffman seems superficially like an aged version of Jeff Daniels’s cantankerous author. (The two actors share the same lion’s mane of a beard in their respective movies as well.) “It probably existed in my subconscious,” the filmmaker admits while speaking of the echoes of the Berkmans in the Meyerowitz clan. “But all my movies speak to each other in some ways; maybe because they are both about family and siblings, these two movies maybe speak louder to each other.”
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Original) premieres on Netflix on Oct. 13.
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