Holiday Movie Month: "The Family Stone" Review

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The Family Stone is a comedy about the annual holiday gathering of a New England family, the Stones. The eldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings his girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his family. The bohemian Stones greet their visitor -- a high-powered, controlling New Yorker -- with a mix of awkwardness, confusion and hostility. Before the holiday is over, relationships will unravel while new ones are formed, secrets will be revealed, and the family Stone will come together through its extraordinary capacity for love.
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Holiday Movie Month: "The Family Stone" Review

Rating: PG-13
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: December 16, 2005
Directed by: Thomas Bezucha
Genre: Comedy/Romance/Drama

For many people, Christmastime is synonymous with carols, cocoa, and a yearly dose of family drama. Thomas Bezucha's holiday film takes its place among a time-honored genre. The dysfunctional family Christmas is a popular trope, explored in movies such as "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" (1989). As families across the country migrate to relatives' homes for awkward dinner-table conversations and rekindled feuds, so do the characters in holiday classics.

"The Family Stone" certainly contains enough dysfunction to keep things interesting. It also goes an extra step by acknowledging the love, warmth, and humor that only a family can truly generate. The result is a screwball Christmas comedy that balances sappy moments and corny jokes with genuine emotion. Like a favorite recipe for fruitcake, the ingredients in this movie blend together to create an appealing, if not exactly original, finished result.

Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a tightly wound and straight-laced Manhattan executive. It's too bad for her that she's such a nervous person by nature; she's about to face a situation that would make even the most easygoing person a little anxious. She's going to meet her boyfriend's (Dermot Mulroney) family for the first time. Meredith has a feeling that this is the final step before marriage. If she can win the approval of Everett's Connecticut-dwelling family, she might just become a Stone herself. However, this is a huge if, and Meredith's neurotic side is out in full force.

Everett is the handsome, successful oldest son in an eccentric family. Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton) is headstrong and fiercely protective of her children. Her failing health is one of the film's main plot points, although it isn't always explicitly explored. Sybil's laidback husband (Craig T. Nelson) seems happy to play second fiddle to his vibrant wife. Everett's four siblings include Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), a sweet-natured homemaker, and Thad (Tyrone Giordano), an architect who is hearing impaired. Amy (Rachel McAdams) is a cynical spitfire, while Ben (Luke Wilson) is a mellow underachiever who takes his surname a little too literally when it comes to relaxation techniques.

The Stones are a proud group, always ready to defend each other. They're obviously capable of welcoming new people into their lives. For instance, Thad is happily in love with his partner, Patrick (Brian J. Thomas). The two are even considering adopting a child together, and they have the Stones' full support. While this is a heartwarming example of the Stones' likeable qualities, the family also has a dark side. Sybil and Amy take an instant dislike to Meredith, who has apparently committed the unspeakable sins of being socially conservative and not very hip. Panicking and lost as she commits one faux pas after another, Meredith recruits the help of her diplomatic sister, Julie (Claire Danes). When Julie shows up, however, the sparks that fly between her and Everett throw a wrench in the works. To make things even more complicated, Meredith is starting to realize that easygoing Ben is her main ally in the Stone household. Although Ben is her absolute opposite, Meredith soon remembers the old saying about opposites attracting.

"The Family Stone" features a star-studded ensemble cast, and part of the fun of this holiday movie is watching so many talented actors come together to walk a fine, delicate line between comedy and drama. As with the best holiday movies, Bezucha's film offers both tears and laughter. There are some screwball pratfalls, such as splatting breakfast casseroles. There are also tender, complex, and authentic moments between family members.

While the actors turn in strong performances, the film's plot suffers from some drawbacks. Much of the movie's success hinges on the audience siding with the quirky, lovable Stones against the dorky, out-of-touch Meredith. However, as fumbling and insensitive as Meredith can be, it's obvious to most audience members that she's trying her hardest. The Stones' predisposition to hate Meredith because of her geeky chignon doesn't build much sympathy toward the Stones. Sybil and Amy, in particular, seem to go out of their way to nitpick at Meredith and make her feel unwelcome. Still, by the end of the film, Meredith has her redeeming moments.

"The Family Stone" is a Christmas movie that's funny, charming, and emotional enough to watch during other times of the year. The Christmastime setting mostly serves as a convenient plot device to bring together the adult members of the family and their respective romantic partners. The movie's message, in all its sprawling and flawed glory, is one that stays fresh all year long. It's a story about being true to oneself and finding love in unexpected places. "The Family Stone" is, ultimately, all about family. As prickly and persnickety as the Stones can be, their camaraderie and warmth wins out in the end. Not just for Meredith, but also for the audience.

Rating: 3 out of 5