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The Adam Sandler in ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’ Is the Best Serious Adam Sandler Ever

Adam Sandler doesn’t do normal. From his early days on Saturday Night Live — playing characters like Opera Man and Cajun Man — to hit movies such as Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy, the comic has made his name playing buffoons and mentally deranged weirdos. As he’s gotten older — he turns 51 in September — Sandler has matured ever so slightly, now more often portraying characters who seem like actual human beings, although that still leaves room for the bizarro sister character of Jack and Jill or the horn-dog dad of That’s My Boy.

But even when Sandler does the occasional “serious” film — e.g., Punch-Drunk Love or Reign Over Me — there’s a fatal inability within his characters to connect to the ordinary world. And when he tries to play it straight, such as in Spanglish or the little-seen Men, Women & Children, he feels a bit uncomfortable, as if the guise of a normal guy is too confining (or maybe too revealing) in comparison to the crazed oddness he usually exudes.

Not anymore.

Sandler’s latest movie just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s an exciting sign of his artistic growth that it finds him in a serious movie playing a regular guy and doing it very well.

The Meyerowitz Stories was written and directed by Noah Baumbach, who made The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, the latter co-starring wild-man comic Jack Black in one of his most restrained roles. Baumbach elicits something similar from Sandler, who plays Danny, one of the adult children of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a forgotten sculptor who blames the world for his lack of acclaim. Danny loves his dad — the world may not appreciate his father’s work, but he does — and once had some hope of becoming a songwriter, which it appears he pursued in part to impress Harold.

This should make them close, but instead Harold has never seemed that interested in Danny’s affection or his music. Much prouder of his younger son Matthew (Ben Stiller), a rich business manager, Harold has treated Danny like a perpetual disappointment. He may have good reason, too: As Meyerowitz begins, Danny is looking for a place to live now that he and his wife have separated, and he’s forced to move in with his dad. Except for his loving teen daughter (Grace Van Patten), who’s practically his best friend, Danny doesn’t have much going on in his life. He has no job, his songwriting career died a long time ago and his hip is bothering him so badly he lurches around with a noticeable limp. Nobody in the family says it out loud, but Danny is a loser — and Danny knows it.

In the past when Sandler has tried to play normal, his determination to rein himself in has smothered his personality. But in Meyerowitz, he builds on the promise of 2009’s Funny People, the Judd Apatow comedy-drama in which he portrayed a narcissistic comic at a crossroads. That Sandler was essentially doing a darker version of himself, and it helped make that movie funny. But Funny People also found him loosening up a bit: Sure, a fictional movie star isn’t exactly a normal guy, but Sandler figured out how to locate the vulnerability and humanity in the character so that he came across as a regular dude.

In Meyerowitz, there’s nothing glamorous about Danny, and Sandler digs into the man’s self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness. Occasionally, when Danny has had it with his dad or his brother or the world in general, he’ll let fly with the unhinged bellowing scream that was a constant in Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Each time, you recognize, “Oh yeah, right, that’s the Adam Sandler I know,” but in the context of such a beaten-down schlub, there’s little comedic catharsis in that rage. It feels more like a temporary release valve rather than a punchline, and even the reliably crazy-eyed insanity that Sandler brought to Punch-Drunk Love is mostly missing here.

In its place is a compassionate look at a failure who, maybe, might just discover he hasn’t done so badly in life. Like the rest of his family members, among whom divorce has been a common occurrence, Danny has watched his marriage collapse. But he’s worked hard to keep a good relationship with his daughter, and their warm exchanges are among Meyerowitz’s highlights. (She’s about to go off to college, a prospect that leaves them both anxious — neither wants to be away from the other.)

There’s real affection in Sandler’s scenes with Van Patten, and he comes across as relaxed rather than tight. Elsewhere in the film as he sheepishly tries to make small talk with an old friend (Rebecca Miller) he used to have a crush on, Sandler doesn’t use his go-to adolescent cutesiness to win her over. Danny has dealt with too much nonsense in his life to affect any sort of pose around this woman — he’s poignantly ordinary and honest because he’s too tired to try anything else other than being himself.

The initial reviews of Meyerowitz have been strong, with Vanity Fair going so far as to declare “Adam Sandler Will Make You Forget He’s Adam Sandler.” After the psychotic nut jobs he’s played in the past, that wouldn’t necessarily be the worst career move. But I’d go one step further — maybe the Sandler we see in Meyerowitz is the nuanced actor he’s always been if he just tried. And maybe this movie will encourage the superstar to explore this far-more-interesting Adam Sandler a little more.