As long as there have been films, there have been films about dysfunctional families. A reason why they’re so appealing is that we’ve all had families so it’s easy to see a part of ourselves within the characters we watch on screen. Many films have taken this idea in multiple directions with different results. Whether these films succeed or fail depends on the likeability and relatability of the characters. In the case of this film, it succeeds at both.
The film follows an estranged trio of siblings named Danny (Sandler), Matthew (Stiller), and Jean Meyerowitz (Elizabeth Marvel) who have reunited to celebrate their father Harold’s (Hoffman) work and deal with his sudden illness. Harold was an eccentric man who did not treat his children equally with Danny and Jean coming from an earlier marriage and Matthew from his third wife Julia (Candice Bergen). Over time, parts of their past, including old wounds and their various resentments of began to emerge.
The story is divided in three abrupt chapters, one for each sibling, telling the story from each perspective in a way that fit their lives. Danny was a divorced house-husband who had never had a job and lacked the confidence to pursue one despite his many talents. Matthew escaped the rest of his family and became a successful business manager dealing with the burden of being the favorite son. Jean was just set aside along with Danny and they both have come to terms with it. They perhaps blamed this lack of success in their personal lives from being set aside by their father.
The family dynamic presented here felt genuine and natural in its depiction of how the lack of a father’s love and attention affected these siblings. The film does this in a complex and very nuanced way. Each sibling coped with their issues in different ways, often bottling their feelings on the inside, but they still had their issues with one another. Despite how they felt about their father, Danny and Jean were there for him, however, Matthew was gone. Once faced with one another, they had to decide to hold on to the feelings they had or to just let them go and move on with their lives.
What made it so compelling to watch was its smartly-written script. For a mostly dialog-driven plot, everyone was always fun to watch as it was easy to relate to these characters thus becoming emotionally invested in them. It ultimately would not have worked if not for the excellent performances across the board.
Sandler occasionally has moments of brilliance and this film serves as another, perhaps his best, playing Danny. He gives an excellent performance of a man looking for the approval of his father. Stiller provided perhaps another career-best performance as a man broken on the inside. In less screen time than the others, Marvel’s mostly deadpan performance will get some laughs but it didn’t distract from her own pain below the surface. Lastly, Hoffman was arguably the best as Harold, the eccentric and self-centered patriarch. He was a man who was so encompassed with his work that he often forgot about his own children.
Overall, this was an excellent, smartly-written dramedy that captures a dysfunctional family dynamic in a natural, relatable way and is elevated by excellent performances across the board.