The Family Stone / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()
The Family Stone tracks Christmas weekend with the Stone family, one of those idealized, liberal New England families that listens to NPR, sips cappuccinos in the morning, wears ridiculously fashionable pajamas, and — for all intents and purposes — doesn’t actually exist except onscreen. Each one of the children seems to fit into one of the five identifiable made-for-movies demographics: Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) is a pregnant stay-at-home mom who hyphenates her last name; Amy (Rachel McAdams) is the snarky, rebellious daughter, inasmuch as occasionally raising her voice can constitute “rebellious”; Ben (Luke Wilson) is the SoCal stoner type, inasmuch the recreational use of marijuana in a very liberal, intelligence-engendering sort of way can constitute “stoner”; Everett (Dermot Mulroney) is the bland, homogeneous, overachieving wunderkind who these stories tend to center around; and Thad, who is gay, deaf, and has a black boyfriend, is the Stones’ utility infielder, covering any of the empty bases left by a script that is so aware of its own political correctness you could almost puke all over your Ferragamo shoes. Rounding out the Stone clan are the Ma and Pa Kettle of this snow-covered, picket-fenced utopia: Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) and Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton), who just so happen to be the kind of perfect parents that could only be ruffled by overt Republicanism or a Wal-Mart opening up in their neighborhood.
But frictionless idealism does not a romantic comedy script make. Enter Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) to disturb the Stone family equilibrium; she is prim, reserved, corporate, and probably centrist, the kind of heathen who opts to listen to CNBC instead of NPR (!) and talks about (gasp!) IPOs in mixed company (!). Indeed, Meredith is everything the Stone family isn’t, except for wealthy, over-educated, and white; she is the fish out of the Stone family water, only she’s not really out, because God knows the Stone family is a huge contributor to PETA and simply wouldn’t have a fish flailing around for air. Let’s just say her water is purified, instead of chock full of goodies from the health food section of the fishbowl.
At any rate, Meredith doesn’t hit it off very well with the Stones, apparently because she feels uncomfortable sleeping in the same bed with Everett under his parents’ roof, which is just the sort of wedge it takes to drive apart tight-knit families. And, before you know it, she’s checked into the Inn (where the coffee is instant[!]),and her sister, Julie (Claire Danes) is beckoned to help put things straight, i.e., wear earth-tone sweaters and look positively radiant under a soft-focus lens.
Now, if you’re one of those people who visits your family only once a year — either on Thanksgiving or Christmas — The Family Stone feels a lot like one of those trips home. Inevitably, the first few hours feel awkward, the small talk seems to highlight all the things about your family that you can no longer relate to, and there tends to be an elephant everyone is stepping around in favor of discussing the weather, your mother’s grocery store run-in with some forgettable guy with whom you went to high school, or the latest in the Police Beat section of the local newspaper. Yet, sometime around the fifth time your father offers suggestions for the different routes you could’ve taken to avoid traffic, the elephant is finally embraced, and you are reminded once again why you belong to this particular family, and what it is about them that you’ve always loved, despite all of their obnoxious foibles.
For the first half hour to 45 minutes of The Family Stone, I felt trapped in that uncomfortable early-visit hell. All I could think was: Wow! Finally Hollywood has decided to make a holiday comedy for upper-middle-class white people, a niche so long forgotten by the powers that be in the studio system. The film is marketed as a “dysfunctional family comedy,” but Thomas Bezucha (the writer/director) apparently thinks that dysfunction means attractive people with great jobs who just happen to be a little bit too uptight, overwrought, or have a tendency to fall with perfect comic timing. That’s not dysfunction, asshole. What these people have are minor eccentricities, which just happen to lend themselves perfectly to formulaic plot turns and sitcom-ready warm fuzziness. Oooooh. Lookit: Sarah Jessica Parker is “playing against type”; that bland, good-looking guy everyone confuses with Matt Dillon looks awfully bland and good looking again; Luke Wilson is pretending to be his brother; Rachel McAdams apparently won’t appear onscreen without a bowl of cereal; and what the hell is Coach Hayden Fox doing in a movie without Joshua Jackson?
But, then, somewhere along the way that awkwardness dissipates, the elephant is embraced, and you find yourself feeling something close to affection for the Stone family. I mean, you know exactly what’s going to happen: Sarah Jessica Parker is going to finally wave that goddamn “freak flag” the trailers warned you about, she’ll fall in love with the wrong brother, the family will dabble in a little Neil Simon-style door-slamming before ultimately welcoming Meredith, and everyone else will pair off into preposterously happy holiday bliss.
It’s trite as hell, but thanks to Diane Keaton, it somehow works. Why? Because the elephant in The Family Stone is Sybil Stone, who is so affectation-free, beautiful, and endearing that when the script takes a turn into the land of Meryl Streep, you don’t feel manipulated. Keaton won’t let that happen; you won’t weep at Sybil Stone, you’ll weep with her, and she’ll put her arms around your shoulder and you’ll love it, goddamnit. Because you and Annie Hall have gone through a lot together, and when she smiles at you and her eyes do that twinkly thing, you’re gonna wanna lose it, even if the rest of the film makes you sick to your stomach. In Diane Keaton’s wake, that Matt Dillon guy is Dermot Mulroney and he’s charming; Carrie Bradshaw and “Coach” feel like part of the family rather than bits of sitcom lore; Luke is all of a sudden the cool Wilson brother; Rachel McAdams’ smile is heartbreaking when she doesn’t have a cereal spoon in her mouth; and even the gay, deaf brother with a black boyfriend doesn’t seem preciously fabricated anymore.
Indeed, by the end of The Family Stone, you forget that you wanted to rob the Stone family on Christmas Eve and leave them the fend for themselves at an anti-abortion rally just to piss them off; instead, you want to cozy up in front of that ridiculous Neiman Marcus Christmas tree with some $300 pajama bottoms, some hot cocoa, and a goddamn crossword puzzle and bask in the glow of Diane Keaton’s smile.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.