What is it about the holiday season that makes Hollywood execs go gooey on the movie-going audience? It’s as if they create saccharine, pre-packaged fare like Jingle All the Way as an antidote to the explosive, often cynical, big-budget summer flicks.
Watching the trailers for The Family Stone, I expected the usual holiday concoction: wacky family, token love story and a Christmas spirit message all wrapped in warm, fuzzy sentiment. My initial expectation was that, while there would likely be few surprises, it would be respectably played by its cast and the result would be something along the modestly pleasant lines of the Steve Martin Father of the Bride movies. Fortunately, writer-director Thomas Bezucha (whose only previous credit is the little-seen indie Big Eden) proved me very wrong indeed.
It is in fact Christmastime, and the titular family, headed by Sybil (Diane Keaton) and Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), host a holiday convergence of all their children: Ben (Luke Wilson), a pothead slacker; Amy (Rachel McAdams) a tart-tongued college student; the very pregnant Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) and her daughter (Savannah Stehlin); Thaddeus (Ty Giordano), who’s deaf, and his partner (Brian J. White); and golden boy Everett (Dermot Mulroney) who brings with him his high-strung new girlfriend, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). The film’s central plot deals with the socially awkward Meredith’s attempts to integrate herself into this closely-knit family of type-A personalities, with the help of her sister Julie (Claire Danes), who shows up for moral support.
Bezucha has assembled a marvelous cast and has written a wonderful ensemble piece that allows all of them to shine. The individual performances are terrific all-around, but perhaps most noteworthy is how believable the family dynamic is. Furthermore, Bezucha eschews the usual yuletide syrup by making the Stones a sharp, often judgmental brood with a number of issues and complicated relationships among them. Keaton has never been better, taking her Annie Hall persona into much darker territory to wondrous effect. She’s matched by the underrated Nelson, who conveys so much even when he’s not speaking. Parker, who I’ve always found to be a likeable, if limited actress, plays against type impressively as the painfully awkward outsider. McAdams returns to her Mean Girls roots as the sister who has it in for her brother’s new fiancée from the beginning. Wilson’s natural so-what looseness is perfectly utilized as the only family member who doesn’t immediately go for Meredith’s jugular. If Mulroney and Danes seem a bit pale by comparison, it is in part because their parts have less color than the rest of the family. Their work is good and more than respectable.
The Family Stone is a richly textured story that has more real human pain than you would expect from a holiday movie—and it is all the better because of it. Even when you can see a few plot points coming, they fit the story that Bezucha has set up so well that you’ll hardly mind. This movie performed solidly, if not spectacularly, at the box office (I think a certain oversized gorilla might have had something to do with it). My hope is that this terrific film gets the attention it deserves on DVD and TV. It’s a holiday film that despite its hard edges truly embraces the spirit of the season.
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