This sophomore feature from writer-director Thomas Bezucha, whose low-budget “Big Eden” offered a quirky but only intermittently agreeable take on small-town life, is yet another of those dysfunctional-family-at-the-holidays movies that aim to elicit smiles of recognition but are more likely to make you wince in pain. Remember Jodie Foster’s awful “Home for the Holidays” (1995)? Well, “The Family Stone” is about an eventful Christmas rather than a problematic Thanksgiving, but it’s not appreciably better.
The family in the present case are the Stones–college prof Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), his sad-faced but loving wife Sybil (Diane Keaton), and their five grown children–Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), Ben (Luke Wilson), Everett (Dermot Mulroney), Amy (Rachel McAdams) and Thad (Ty Giordano), all of whom are returning to their snowy, upper-middle class homestead for the holiday. The kids are very different, though close: Susannah is normal and married, with a precocious daughter; Ben, as one would expect from the actor playing him, is a likable slacker; Everett a slick Manhattan executive; and Amy a rather mean-spirited bachelorette. With Thad, moreover, we get a screenwriter’s trifecta: not only is the lovable fellow deaf but he’s gay as well–and his significant other, moreover, is African-American Patrick (Brian White). But the spirit of the season, as it turns out, is blighted by two things. One is the unhappy medical condition of one character, which is kept a secret for much of the running-time but is trotted out at an appropriate moment to provide a strong dose of pathos that the picture doesn’t really earn. The other, which permeates the entire movie, is the fact that Everett is bringing home a woman to whom he intends to propose–Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), an uptight businesswoman whom only Amy has met, and whom she loathes. (A major complaint is that poor Meredith has a habit of clearing her throat!) It doesn’t take long for his parents and most of his siblings to take a near-instant dislike to Meredith too, much to Everett’s distress (Sybil even refuses his request for his grandmother’s ring, which he’d hoped to give his intended); and Meredith responds by asking her younger sister Julie (Claire Danes) to join her in order to provide moral support–however implausible that sounds. What follows is a cacophony of family bickering and musical romances in which most everything works out for the best (tied up as neatly as a professionally-wrapped Christmas package), though there’s an undercurrent of loss to make the finale a bittersweet one that the makers obviously hope will mingle tears of joy with those of sorrow.
None of this has the remotest shred of credibility, even though there are touches of realism in some of the characters, and Keaton and Nelson (as well as Reaser, as the least noticeable of the siblings) exhibit a degree of warmth that’s occasionally appealing, even touching. But for the most part their children are much less happy bunch. Mulroney’s Everett comes across as a stiff (he’s much better playing the sort of goofy type he did in “About Schmidt”), and Ben a thoughtless bum (Wilson’s natural looseness helps somewhat); Amy, on the other hand, is such a nasty shrew that it’s incredible she has a suitor, a local paramedic played by Paul Schneider (and McAdams has never been less agreeable onscreen), and Thad is just a walking touchstone of political and emotional correctness, which Giordano embodies well enough. And while Danes certainly strikes a pleasant and attractive figure as one of their two guests, Parker is stuck with a thoroughly thankless part as her eager-to-please but hopelessly prim and garrulous sister. The fact that Meredith is made the butt of most of the picture’s jokes has a strong scent of cruelty about it–she’s literally heaped with humiliation, which is about par for the course for the odd person out in most Hollywood scripts about romantic triangles. But what’s especially obnoxious in this instance is that she’s especially derided for being judgmental–in a painfully bad dinner scene in which she blurts out some thoughtless remarks about Thad and Patrick’s plans to adopt–when in reality it’s the entire family who have been judging her mercilessly. (Of course, since they all hold the “right” ideas, their judgments must be correct.) There’s an underlying smugness to the script and the playing of it that makes the movie less a gift to the audience than a glib cinematic lump of coal–a quality that’s not alleviated by the handsome production (designed by Jane Ann Stewart) and art direction (by Timothy “TK” Kirkpatrick) and Jonathan Brown’s equally fine cinematography. Michael Giacchino’s score, however, is much too intrusive, working overtime in a futile effort to encourage us to feel the emotions that the movie itself fails to deliver.
It’s sad that “The Family Stone” turned out so badly, because one can sense the effort on Bezucha’s part–and that of the excellent cast he’s assembled–to give it humor and heart. Unfortunately the picture’s mixture of slapstick, romance and sentimentality never gels, and as a result this is one holiday picture that proves more trick than treat.