Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Family Stone: Christmas with the Liberal Elite (2005)

If you were Sarah Jessica Parker and had just finished an enormously popular HBO series about sex and New York City, what would you do? Get yourself cast against type in a sentimental Christmas flick. So, Parker chose to play a high-strung, anal-retentive career woman named Meredith whose boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulrony) invites her to his home for the holidays. Decently made but predictable, The Family Stone allows us to join a quirky bohemian family of largely known actors in a big white house in snowy New England, the kind of Stuff White People Like place where younger daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams) drives a yellow Volvo station wagon and carries a book bag with NPR written on it. In contrast to the family’s easygoing camaraderie, Meredith acts self-conscious, talks too much, hunches her shoulders, and keeps unwittingly suggesting that she’s an uptight bigot. Amy Stone gives Meredith an especially hard time, mocking the way she clears her throat, and eventually she drives her out of the Stone family home to stay at a local inn for the night.

The Stones are easygoing but also insular and Hollywood-style liberal. They tend to use sign language because the gay younger brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano) is deaf. In case anyone in the audience has any problem with openly homosexual characters, the writer and director Thomas Bezucha supplies Thad with an African American lover (Brian White), and later they adopt an African American child. So, the Stones are not only winsomely eccentric, but also in-your-face politically correct.

As in a Shakespeare comedy, the plot of The Family Stone boils down to some girlfriend boyfriend-swapping on Christmas Eve. Everyone says the wrong thing, apologizes, learns about him or herself, and tears up because one Stone has a well-hidden mortal illness. Given the film’s sentimentality, mostly only the ensemble acting held my interest. Since I am acquainted with her excellent 1980s work with Woody Allen, it seemed creepy to see Diane Keaton (as Sybil Stone) look so grandmatronly with graying hair covering her temples and glasses. She suddenly resembles the elderly Ann Bancroft. Her character’s son, Everett, wishes for her to give him her mother’s wedding ring (hence the title Family Stone). He wants to use the ring so he can propose to Meredith, but she understandably balks at this idea.

As the laidback Ben Stone, Luke Wilson steals his scenes mostly by cheerfully doing nothing. Just before Meredith leaves for the hotel, Ben carries some coffee out to her car, and just stands there in his grey sweat pants and t-shirt, looking nonchalant. By underplaying his line readings, Wilson comes across as sane and enviably centered, if slightly useless. His mellowness grounds Sarah Jessica Parker’s histrionics. Meanwhile, Claire Danes, who plays Meredith’s sister Julie Morton, arrives on a bus, but since her role is underwritten, her romantic entanglements prove less plausible. As the bratty younger sister Amy, Rachel McAdams proves again that she can hold her own with anyone on screen, though her character flattens out as the film goes on.

Do you like your holiday cheer poured on like maple syrup? Do you like to join rich families as they laugh, cry, and spill uncooked casserole on themselves? Are you in the mood for allusions to Meet Me in St. Louis and It’s a Wonderful Life where the snow begins to fall at the key moment of a soul-searching Christmas eve? If so, The Family Stone has its virtues. While it lacks edge, it does have talent.


JUS said...

I recognized several archetypal New Englanders in this flick and was surprised by your comparison to Hollywood liberals.

The movie was comforting and funny... just the thing after fighting the Christmas buying crowds.

It wasn't memorable, so I haven't thought about it in awhile, but I may add it somewhere into my Netflix queue.

fdr said...

I have nothing against liberals, but a bias that shows in a movie is annoying.