“You don't have to be nervous ... they're gonna love you.”
Writer-Director Thomas Bezucha's sophomore directorial effort about character clashes at Christmastime went down quite well on its home turf, in a land where the romantic-comedy positively thrives, but just came and went without so much as a contended smirk, or a derisory sneer here in the U.K. On face value, it is quite easy to see why. Americans love their Holiday movies, and especially ones that revolve around the intricacies and screwball antics of an unconventional family that is forced to learn important things about its members and their relationships with one another. Add to that the somewhat recent fad of bringing a stranger into the mix - Meet The Fockers and a whole plethora of other “outside intervention” flicks - and the bell of familiarity rings out loud and clear. The family in this case, the Stones, are an extended clan of quirky, likeable New England bohemians whose sense of world-loving harmony is disrupted when Sarah Jessica Parker's stranger, Meredith Morton, is brought kicking and screaming into their once-tolerant realm by her boyfriend, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), the Stone's eldest son. The fact that Manhattan-based Meredith is an uptight, career-minded go-getter with an attitude that instantly rankles the entire Stone enclave is the slight hook that Bezucha balances his plot upon. Everett's simple plan of announcing his intention to marry this irascible fly-in-the-ointment becomes akin to tossing a hand-grenade into a nursery, with his brethren abandoning their “love all” sentiments to gang up on the starched usurper with fairly unforgiving hostility. With family secrets soon tumbling out, and a last-ditch attempt by Meredith to gain some emotional support by enlisting the aid of her laidback and eminently more popular sister, played by Claire Danes, resulting in some unexpected (except by the audience, that is) romantic developments, the scene is set for a tale that veers clumsily from farce to tragedy, and from romance to revelation.
“Well, I don't understand what he sees in her.”
Despite benefiting from a splendid cast - Diane Keaton as the Stone Family matriarch Sybil and Craig T. Nelson as the erstwhile father lending class and gravitas to an otherwise whimsical comedy-drama - The Family Stone still has a few problems juggling its varied themes. It tries to be funny - and is only partially successful. It yearns to explore the machinations of a deeply devoted family unit when confronted with an encroaching outsider and how it comes to terms with strong personal grief looming on the horizon - yet renders such observations weightless and un-dramatic when juxtaposed with the inane slapstick that Bezucha likes to occasionally employ. It is a badly contrived lump of blatant schmaltz, no matter how likeable it is. And it is likeable, despite its many shortcomings. The Stone family obviously grate - they are much too close to be a real family. And Meredith is too straight-laced and rigid to be involved with anyone other than Dermot Mulroney's bland, one-dimensional, factory-assembled male sounding-board. Of the entire cast, he is the one that suffers the most, with a poorly written part, his character being little more than a cipher, an excuse to bring the confrontation to the Stone's doorstep. By the way, does anyone else think that Mulroney looks like an unholy fusion of Brendan Fraser and Sylvester Stallone? Look at that slackened mouth! However, there is plenty of joy to be found in the rest of the ensemble. Luke Wilson as the drawling airhead middle brother Ben has the comical edge over the rest, providing some neat slacker humour by virtue of what appear to be more than a few adlibs. And Rachel McAdams, witless but attractive in the lame Red Eye, actually shines here in the under-written, yet multi-tasking role of bitchy antagonist, weapon of sarcasm and begrudged confident as Everett's room-displaced sister Amy. She reveals a depth to her character that probably never existed on the page. Danes' character adds some colour to the plot even if she, herself, does not, and it is arguably her involvement in the narrative that piles on the conventional Yuletide sentiment, the pick 'n' mix switcheroo of romances that brings the familial strife to its ultimate thunderhead.
“I'm sorry ... this just isn't coming out right.”
The awkward dinner sequence, the clear-cut centre-piece of the film, is a badly over-egged situation of escalating conflict, showcasing Meredith's simply suicidal knack for digging a hole for herself and then stubbornly refusing to give in, even when she distinctly knows she has gone way, way over the Stone family's acceptability threshold. It is the type of excruciatingly cringe-worthy scenario that Bezucha probably thinks is on a par with David Brent's calamitous conversation-stoppers in The Office ... but it goes on for far too long and contains a dogged determination to make a point that is sadly unconvincing given the already difficult circumstances. Although, on the plus side, the scene does reveal some intriguing tensions that have been nestling just beneath the surface, and is obviously the catalyst for the strange true romances to follow. And, thus, Bezucha adheres to the failsafe format for a middle act of slowly ruminating revelations that have been all-too blatant from the get-go.
“Grandma just signed something really, really bad.”
Tonally, the film is all over the place, which possibly explains why it didn't find a market over here. Bezucha slovenly ladles on the pathos and the sentiment, fully expecting it to sit happily alongside moments of brief hilarity and cosy, life-affirming family values. The culture-clash, though, nixes its initially clever notion of the overly PC-minded Stones - the ridiculous pitch of the youngest son (played by Tyrone Giordano) being both deaf and gay, living in a multi-racial relationship and hoping to raise a surrogate child is pushing the heart-on-the-sleeve gesture way beyond all credibility, despite the farcical element. But their closed-ranks discrimination of someone who is merely an arrogant city girl flies in the face of such new-age tolerance. The feeling is that Bezucha, who had had this story in mind for quite a while, was at pains to keep it simple, but just couldn't resist throwing too much into the mix. Intending it to be light entertainment, but having too many pretensions of melodrama kind of cancels out both noble aspirations, I feel. In the hands of a more capable filmmaker, this combination could have worked much better. As it stands, nothing happens here that hasn't been clearly signposted, but the wallowing in familial grief and behind-closed-doors bonding that actually takes up the lion's share of the running time gives The Family Stone an unbalanced atmosphere that lightens the morality of the piece and smothers the laughs.
“I'm sick, honey, and you can't fix it. Not even by getting married.”
But there are plus points to all this cloying heartache. The New England setting has a truly brisk wintry feel - every time somebody steps outside, you can taste the chill in the air. The camerawork in the rambling, colonial Stone household makes the place come to life with that typical American fuzziness, and the family certainly seem like they belong there. Parker's performance is assured, if a little clichéd. The scene when she finally comes out of her shell, with the aid of alcohol and a character with ulterior motives sitting opposite her - one of the two big moments of self-discovery that hinge the movie - is just lifted from Hollywood stock, scene-development akin to the use of library music in films from the seventies, if you like. Yet it does provide a bit of light relief, a pleasantly relaxing interlude from the tensions that have been made manifest back home. That she is very clearly having a great time making the film is never up for question, yet she is still one of the rocks that this venture clings to. But it is Keaton who steals the show, with a performance that is at once warmly protective and blisteringly scathing. She exhibits some marvellous intimate moments with Nelson (still the quintessential American family man) and each of her children, whilst maintaining an unpredictable edge of frosty contempt with regards to Meredith. The score by moviedom's musical man of the moment, Michael Giacchino (with TV's Lost and the awesome score for Mission Impossible 3 solidly backing up his credentials after his great accompaniment for The Incredibles) starts off with a brash buoyancy reminiscent of many an old school romantic romp, yet he manages to rein the tempo effectively and subtly throughout the film at large.
So, to finish off, The Family Stone is the type of slick, production-line fluff that is the chick-flick remedy to the action-junkie's latest fix. Although saddled with a neat A to B narrative, that is traipsed out with close attention paid to the familiar formula, the charade is still pretty enough, and moving enough to hit a lot of the right buttons. There's no way that you can't know what's coming next, but that doesn't exclude the agreeable amount of fun to be had along the way. The climactic lunacy of Christmas Day is as needed as it is obvious ... and, like most over-wrapped presents, it is still nice to receive.
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