by Mel Valentin
Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, "The Family Stone" is a family drama/comedy in the tradition (if “tradition” is indeed the right word) of "Home for the Holidays," "Meet the Parents," and "Pieces of April," mixing familiar elements from all three films, yet still managing to elicit laughs, emotion, and pathos in equal measure. That "The Family Stone" follows a well-worn path from family dysfunction, discomfort, and humiliation toward family reconciliation and equilibrium (as measured by the number of couples settling into monogamous relationships by the end credits) is obvious from the trailers and the subject matter, but sometimes (and "The Family Stone") is one example), the optimism inherent in the formula provides a level of comfort for audiences eager to fantasize about an idealized, idyllic family life that rarely exists in the real world.The Family Stone’s throughline centers on Christmas and the impending arrival of the Stone’s prodigal son, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), a high-powered corporate type, and his high-strung girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker). Meredith represents everything the liberal-progressive Stone clan frowns upon: she’s materialistic, smug, self-centered, impatient, and uncomfortable in her own skin. She’s also eager to please Everett’s family, including the family patriarch, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), Everett’s mother, Sybil (Diane Keaton), Everett’s laid-back, pot-smoking brother, Ben (Luke Wilson), Everett’s gay (and deaf) brother, Thad (Tyrone Giordano), Everett’s younger sister, Amy (Rachel McAdams), Everett’s very pregnant sister, Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), and Susannah’s young daughter, Elizabeth Trousdale (Savannah Stehlin).
"A dysfunctional family just like yours, mine, and ours."
Outside of Everett, Meredith has only met Amy before and Amy left their initial meeting, a dinner at a posh New York restaurant, unimpressed with Meredith or her yuppie lifestyle. For her part, Sybil frets about Everett’s choice in girlfriends (she probably prefers someone more like herself). As Meredith’s attempts to ingratiate herself with the Stone clan falter and eventually slip into disaster, with even Everett beginning to question his feelings for her, Meredith calls on the support of her younger sister, Julie Morton (Claire Danes). Julie works for an arts foundation, apparently making her the perfect match for Ben, a documentary editor who lives in Berkeley, but has traveled east to Massachusetts to visit his family for the holidays. As Christmas Eve slips into Christmas Day, family conflict, based on unresolved issues and tensions, come to a boil, with harsh words likely to follow. The conflicts and confrontations also reveal a family secret, one which helps to explain Sybil’s reaction to Meredith and her concerns for her family.
To say more at this point would spoil a major plot point that, although predictable, some viewers may not see coming, especially those who prefer to see films with a minimum of plot information (or for true spoilerphobes, anything beyond the premise and who the central characters are and what their relationships are to one another). As expected, there are several reversals, confrontations, and revelations that lead to some heart-tugging, soul-searching, leaving several relationships in temporary limbo. The various storylines end neatly, however, with the conflicts presumably resolved with a finality usually missing from real-world family tensions (which tend to remain unresolved for years, sometimes decades).
The Family Stone’s strength lie not in the familiar storylines or their resolutions (including a wrap-up scene that flashes forward a year, excising a potentially downbeat plot turn, instead showing a reunited family still recovering from a loss), but in the various comic bits involving Meredith’s cringe-inducing antics, the family’s (mostly) intolerant reaction to her behavior, and the occasional glimmer of insight into how families functions (or not function, as the case may be). Most, if not all, of the intra-family conflicts are resolved through non-judgmental communication, an airing of grievances and truth-telling, and, ultimately, family quality time. And the idealized family is tolerant enough to include Thad’s lover, Patrick Thomas (Brian J. White) as a member of the family (it’s Meredith who inadvertently saunters into the minefield of bigotry and intolerance toward gays, of course). Thad and Patrick are as idealized a relationship as you’ll find in a Hollywood film. They love and accept each other without reservation, which, alas, makes their relationship the least compelling in the film."The Family Stone’s" other major strength lies in its strong ensemble cast, most of whom carry their roles, large or small, with admirable naturalism and restraint. Whether through rehearsals or the Bezucha’s firm hand as he directed his film, the ensemble cast certainly look and act like a recognizable family, even if some of the individual storyline’s (Amy’s, for example) feel a bit forced and undernourished. Bezucha should be also commended for a solid screenplay that deftly mixes changes in tone from comedy to farce to drama to tragedy, which looks almost effortless under Bezucha’s guidance. "The Family Stone" may not become a “holiday classic,” but it comes close. Bezucha shows sufficient skill behind the camera and as a screenwriter that his next film, whatever genre he decides to work in, will be worth seeing (or at least anticipating).
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originally posted: 12/16/05 02:10:14