In The Family Stone, straight-laced Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his family over Christmas, unleashing all manner of bickering, misunderstandings, heartache, and romantic shifts of gear. For the free-spirited, flower power Stones, Meredith is but a wet blanket, a bore, the kind of urban shrew whom Sybil (Diane Keaton), Everett’s mother, believes will forever strait-jacket her son. Everett’s sister, the saucy but romantically unrequited Amy (Rachel McAdams) has got Meredith, her feminine counterpoint, in her crosshairs too. Writer-director Thomas Bazucha wants to make both a sentimental tearjerker and a screwball domestic comedy, but, instead of chiseling at stone, he’s happily kneading away at a gob of yuletide Play-Doh.
Parker expertly plays the brittle, uptight Meredith, injecting just enough pathos into her repertoire of comic tics and gaffes that point to the sensitive, wounded soul beneath her hard, neurotic exterior. It’s not with her, oddly enough, but with the Stones themselves that the film’s key problems lie. Bazucha’s family is so removed from Middle American reality that you realize that only in the culturally insulated, left-leaning ivory tower of the Hollywood Hills could anyone conceive of it. It’s actually amusing what passes in Bezucha, Keaton and their co-conspirators’ world for the American family: at their well-appointed table, we have the typically raunchy mother, the gay son accompanied by his black boyfriend both of whom are ecstatic about adopting their first child and are welcomed into the Stone fold with such affection that it’s downright gratuitous. Adjunct references to pot-smoking and virginal deflowering add to Bezucha’s strained attempt at liberal-mindedness. Mind you, I’m not the least bit conservative or squeamish about any of this, I just want movies to be honest, to own up to their own internal logic: Even if this were an idealized vision of America, it’s so pat and precious, so devoid of interior conflict and, hence, from what anyone anywhere would conceive of a family dynamic, that it all but snuffs out any expectation of even a mildly daring attempt at character drama. Everything feels far too prettified here.
As Ben Stone, Everett’s casually wayward brother, Luke Wilson provides an antidote to Keaton’s resolutely white-liberal drollery, but he’s not enough. The oddball Ben is the only member of the Stones to warm up to Meredith, to see the wild child within her that not even Everett can see. Romantic re-alignments take up the second half of The Family Stone as Meredith wakes to her feelings for Ben and Everett, in turn, for Meredith’s younger sister, Julie (Claire Danes), who drops in for a Christmas Eve visit. The story is so saccharine in taste, so sludge-like in its pacing, rife with dialogue of such jaw-dropping blandness that when events get antic in the Stone household, the high jinks feel thoroughly rehearsed and predictable, unfolding as choreographed buffoonery rather than as knockabout anarchy. Everything about The Family Stone, from its politics, its romantic pairings-off to its trite character dynamics all feel stiffly contrived, so much so that it’s a surprise it holds together as a movie at all, and not some vapidly sweet Christmastime commercial for a cell phone, a family car, an iPod. Or an artificial heart, for that matter.
Directed by: Thomas Bezucha
Screenplay by: Thomas Bezucha
Cast: Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Craig T. Nelson, Luke Wilson