However linked Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller may be in your mind as Hollywood’s funniest power Jews, the true and utter travesty is that the last time they were in a movie together was 1996’s Happy Gilmore. Writer-director Noah Baumbach, though, has corrected this sad fact with his latest film, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which screened at Cannes this morning amid controversy surrounding its distributor, Netflix. In short, the dramedy lets Sandler and Stiller play the brothers they’ve always seemed to be. Well, technically half-brothers — as Stiller’s accountant-to-the-stars character, Matthew, often points out — in an artistic family designed to make them both feel like failures (Matthew because he’s not an artist and Sandler’s Danny because he gave up playing piano to be a schlub of a divorced stay-at-home dad). Critics are calling it Sandler’s best work since 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, which non-coincidentally was the last time he was in competition at Cannes.
After years of estrangement, they’re finally back into each other’s orbits to help celebrate the legacy of their aging sculptor father, Harold (Dustin Hoffman), who, it’s starting to dawn on everyone, may have been “underappreciated” his whole career because he’s not very good. He definitely wasn’t good at raising children, neglecting Danny and his sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel), while coddling Matthew’s every move.
In Happy Gilmore, Stiller appeared in an uncredited role as Hal, an evil, mustachioed nursing-home orderly who puts Happy’s grandma to work in a quilt-making sweatshop. But Hal never really gets what’s coming to him, unless you’re counting a deleted scene in which Sandler’s golf-prodigy character throws him out a two-story window.
The Meyerowitz fight scene, then, is a little bit like Happy’s revenge, and this time it has real punches. Baumbach, who directed Stiller before in 2010’s Greenberg and 2014’s While We’re Young, said at the press conference that he knew even before he’d written the script that he wanted the two brothers to get into a physical scuffle: “So, in a way, I reverse-engineered the movie from the fight.”
And, oh, it is not a pretty fight. It starts with the brothers sincerely expressing how they wished they were closer, then devolves into cutting insults and shoving. Soon Danny is kicking Matthew in the shin and Matthew is punching Danny across the face before they drop to the ground and just start wailing on each other. Minutes later, they have to appear in public to give speeches about their father. Matthew is bleeding from his nose. Danny just looks rougher than usual.
In real life, the actors said they were both legitimately banged up in the aftermath. “That fight scene was rougher than I wanted it to be,” said Sandler. “Ben has a more solid body than I was expecting. It wasn’t very easy.” Because the budget was so low, Stiller explained, they could’ve had a stunt choreographer but, “there was no rehearsal at all. We just let it happen. And Noah does like to do a lot of takes. He does a lot of takes. We definitely hurt a little.”
“You hurt me more,” said Sandler. “I had one of the biggest bruises I’ve ever had in my life on my arm and by, like, take 34 I was saying, Hey Ben, just so you know, right here hurts me a lot. If you could start the fight off in the middle of the chest area, that would help me. And then Noah would call action and then bam! I’d be like, I don’t think he heard me! He went straight to the bruise!”
“I am sorry,” said Stiller, not sounding wholly unapologetic. The most dangerous part, Stiller went on to say, was when Baumbach instructed 82-year-old Judd Hirsch, who plays Harold’s more successful major-artist friend, to put them in a double headlock. “It was painful!” said Stiller.
“Judd has strong arms!” Sandler agreed.
Still, both men said they were grateful for the experience, which had brought them closer than they’d ever been, even having known each other for years. “Playing brothers, really, for me, was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Stiller.
And in real life, the entire cast, which also includes Emma Thompson as Harold’s delightfully non-sober fourth wife, said they all rely on psychotherapy to help them get through family disputes. “Therapy is great. But therapy doesn’t end,” said Sandler. “That’s what you learn when you get older. You just keep going.”