Family Stone, The (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's a tough thing for a dysfunctional-family-at-Christmas movie to avoid doses of melodrama, and it's fair to say that The Family Stone contains its share. But the nice thing about the movie is that it avoids overt manipulation. There's some - it's virtually impossible for a movie of this sort to generate an emotional response without any - but it's kept to a minimum and doesn't come at the viewer like a sledgehammer. Instead of having to sit through a Terms of Endearment scene, we are offered something more tasteful.

Meeting one's prospective in-laws is always a daunting prospect, but combine the following factors - you're going to meet them all at once, you're not comfortable with large family gatherings, and it's Christmas - and you have a recipe for a really bad holiday. For Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), this is a nightmare come to life. Meredith is a repressed, buttoned down type with impeccable manners. People warm to her like they do to a glacier. She has accompanied her boyfriend, Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney), home for the holidays. In addition to introducing her to his family, he's thinking of proposing marriage.

The Stone family reacts to Meredith's arrival like a pack of wolves, and they pounce with fangs bared. The worst of the lot is Everett's youngest sister, Amy (Rachel McAdams), who has a barbed comment for every occasion. Sybil (Diane Keaton), Everett's mother, isn't much better - she instantly recognizes that Meredith isn't right for her son. Everett's dad, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson); deaf brother, Thad (Tyrone Giordano); and pregnant sister, Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), take a wait-and-see approach. Only Ben (Luke Wilson), the black sheep of the Stone clan, seems willing to cut Meredith a break. After less than a day with the Stones, the frazzled outsider, feeling the pressure, checks out of the house and into a nearby inn. She also calls in reinforcements in the person of her sister, Julie (Claire Danes). What proceeds to complicate matters is that Everett finds himself attracted to Julie, while Ben and Meredith discover a connection when they attempt to fly her "freak flag."

I have seen The Family Stone categorized in some places as a "screwball comedy," but this is an inappropriate label. There are a few mildly comedic moments sprinkled throughout the production, but this belongs in the drama category. Laughter, although it may occur (and hopefully in all the right places), is not the primary goal of writer/director Thomas Bezucha. He wants The Family Stone to touch a deeper chord. For the most part, he succeeds. There's nothing extraordinary or groundbreaking about the film, but it understands what it's doing, and does it effectively. The key for a movie like this is getting the characters to seem more like people than caricatures, and Bezucha acoomplishes that.

The film comes with an epilogue, and it is needed because not all the subplots can be wrapped up in the three-day span that restricts the primary action. This five-minute sequence, which offers closure to almost everything, has an underlying sense of poignancy that the director could have mishandled. The atmosphere is ripe for manipulation of the kind that will ensure there's not a dry eye in the house. But Bezucha is restrained. He's smart, recognizing that we don't need violins to feel the undercurrent.

The talented cast helps. Sarah Jessica Parker, finding that there is life after Sex in the City, has no difficulty with Meredith's arc. Of all the characters in the movie, she undergoes the biggest transformation, and Parker aces it. Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson settle comfortably into the matriarch/patriarch roles, and there is one especially touching scene between the two of them. Luke Wilson brings his special brand of relaxed, "don't worry, be happy" performance to the proceedings. Rachel McAdams, 2005's "it" girl (see also Wedding Crashers and Red Eye), imparts a dose of charisma. Claire Danes, on the comeback trail, is appealing. And Dermot Mulroney needs little more to get by than his good looks.

It's worth mentioning that this is the best adult holiday film in a while. (Of course, competition has been thin - Christmas with the Kranks, Surviving Christmas, etc.) The box office life of The Family Stone will be short. The movie is so drenched in Christmas spirit that it will seem a little stale once the holidays are past. Even taking this into consideration, it's worth two hours for those who appreciate this kind of workmanlike, low-risk drama.

Family Stone, The (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2005-12-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1