Reel Opinions

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Family Stone

With the arrival of the approaching Christmas holidays, you are almost guaranteed that some Hollywood studio will release a comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family coming together for Christmas. It's as inevitable as death and taxes or the sun setting in the west. This year's entry, The Family Stone, is a most pleasant surprise in that it is quite amusing and a lot smarter than its ad campaign would lead you to think. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha has brought a fine ensemble cast together for a film that is truthful and honest, except for the rare scene where the film takes a sudden awkward dip into slapstick farce territory with people racing around the house and falling over each other. It's far from perfect, but for harmless afternoon killing entertainment, you could do a lot worse.

With the annual Stone family Christmas get together fast approaching, the heads of the household - mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) and mostly laid back father Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) are nervously awaiting the arrival of their eldest son, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), who is bringing home his new girlfriend, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). We first meet the Stone family and Meredith separately early in the film, and right from the start, we can already tell how this family get together will go south in a hurry. The Stones are a tightly knit liberal-minded family, whereas Meredith is an uptight, twittery woman who makes such a strong and forced effort to please everyone around her that no one buys it for a second. It certainly doesn't help that Stone daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams from Red Eye) already has a less than favorable opinion of Meredith from their one encounter, and has been spreading her opinion of the woman amongst the family prior to the arrival of Everett and Meredith. By the time the couple arrives, the entire clan already has a pre-set opinion of this potential new family member, and Meredith seems to be making no effort to change their minds with her constant throat-clearing tick that she has whenever she's nervous and her ability to completely dominate a conversation.

It does not take Meredith long to realize that she's not exactly putting forth the best first impression, and calls in support in the form of her younger sister, Julie (Claire Danes). During the course of the Christmas weekend, bonds of family and relationships will be tested in various ways, especially when both Meredith and Everett begin to question their own attraction to each other.

The Family Stone is certainly nothing new or groundbreaking in its plotting, and in the wrong hands, this could have turned into an annoying and predictable farce. Yet, writer-director Bezucha looks for realism and humanity in his characters instead of cheap gags and overstuffed sentiment. A lot of the humor comes from the differences in the dysfunctions in both Meredith and the Stones. While Meredith is uptight, constantly nervous, and seemingly always keeping her true emotions bottled up, the Stones are a mostly friendly group who can be vicious if need be. They are open-minded, yet at the same time, closed to the opinions of those who may disagree with them. Since Meredith is not good at expressing how she truly feels, it leads to many misunderstandings that do not cast her in a favorable light, such as when a simple comment made by her at a dinner table about Everett's gay and deaf brother, Thad (Tyrone Giordano), leads to an argument that sends the entire family into an uproar. For all of her best efforts, Meredith just simply cannot express herself well enough or in a way that can convince everyone that she means no harm with what she says or does.

Although Meredith's valiant and vain attempt at acceptance is at the heart of the picture, the film expertly juggles a number of subplots that never seem to bog the film down or out of place. Each member of the Stone family seems to have his or her own addition to the plot, the most important being a secret that parents Sybil and Kelly are intentionally keeping from the children until after the holidays are past. The film handles this rather tricky subplot with style and grace, never calling attention to it, and never getting overly melodramatic or sappy as a lesser film would. In a way, it helps us understand their characters a lot more, and why they are so protective of their family ways, and most importantly, why they want this gathering to be perfect. I admire that the film takes the time to give each character their own story arc, but also felt that some of the plots could have been developed a bit more. The movie goes deeper into some arcs more than others, so those characters seem more developed. It's not a big enough of a problem to sink the movie, but it does sort of leave the impression that there was quite a bit cut out before the film hit the screen, as some potentially important characters and relationships (such as the relationship between the previously mentioned Thad and his boyfriend, and their wanting to adopt a child) seem underdeveloped.

Movies like this about large families coming together mostly rise or fall based on the strength of the casting and how well they come together. Well, this is indeed the film's strong suit, as every actor gives a realistic performance and there's hardly a weak link in the chain. Of particular note are Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson, who not only embody their characters perfectly, but also get to share a few quiet moments together that really make you believe they could be a couple. Sarah Jessica Parker seemed to be in danger of being annoying and one-note in her performance early in the film, but as the story progresses, her character comes out of her shell and so does Parker's performance. Luke Wilson as Everett's younger brother, Ben, is likeably goofy and probably the most free-spirited and understanding of the Stone clan. Although not all of the performances leave as strong of an impression as others (Dermot Mulroney comes across as a bit dry, but I think that was intentional with his character), they are all winning in some way, especially since the film seems to give ample opportunity for everyone to have his or her moment to shine.

The Family Stone ended up surprising me in a lot of ways. What I initially labeled as a fluffy little piece of Christmas schlock based on the ad campaign turned out to have a lot more to say than initially thought. The film is honest and respectful, and I think a lot of people will walk out identifying with at least one of the characters or its themes. The film does not strive for greatness, it just wants to be an entertaining seasonal piece that just about anyone can enjoy on some level. And at that, it is an definite success.

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  • nice place you got here. and great reviews too. mind if we swap links?

    By Blogger Noel Y. Bava, at 9:06 AM  

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