This witty and knotty comic portrait of a dysfunctional New York family unpacks the emotional baggage of three adult siblings played by Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel—the kids of a New York sculptor, Harold (Dustin Hoffman, in a shuffling self-possessed performance). It’s core territory for writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), who thrives on Woody Allen–like grown-up comedies spun from the lives of urbanites. He also has experience exploring the long shadows cast by creative parents preoccupied with their own messy lives.
Harold is living with his alcoholic boho fourth wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson, on the broad side), when he falls ill, the event that brings his children together. The film dips into several relationships within this fractured clan, but Baumbach is most interested in half-brothers Danny (Sandler, excellent in a rare chewy role) and Matthew (Stiller, mining a familiar uptightness).
Danny is hot-tempered but likable and lives not far from his dad. His work life is close to nonexistent and his marriage is heading south, but he’s a good dad to college-age Eliza (Grace Van Patten). Matthew is more slick and resides in Los Angeles (although we only see him on the phone to his distant wife and kid). He’s become wealthy from managing the business affairs of creative people. Both of them compete for the wandering, scant affections of their dad, obsessed with an art career that stalled decades ago.
There’s great energy to this film: Quick dialogue, snappy performances and a lived-in feel make us believe this world, these characters and their hang-ups. Baumbach isn’t always subtle with his emotional explosions—there are speeches and fights and bloody noses and smashed windshields—but this is a sharply funny melodrama packed with truths. It avoids cruelty (Hoffman’s character is always a sympathetic presence despite his many flaws) and it walks the minefield of parental responsibility with humor and compassion.