It's unlikely that the religious hucksters who are presently bleating about "putting the Christ back into Christmas" will take comfort in The Family Stone. Still, this holiday film does meet some of the genre's cozy expectations.
It's a reasonably entertaining tale of a family Christmas reunion, with a fair helping of the warm and fuzzies to offset a striking level of cruelty. There are assorted colorful characters, stuffed stockings and presents under the tree, and predictable conflicts and teary reconciliations.
On the other hand, the family gathering includes a gay son who wants to adopt a child with his black partner. The family also includes a slacker documentary filmmaker and a remarkably hostile hippie daughter who totes an NPR bag. Meanwhile, the father is a passive, taciturn presence while the family matriarch is imperious, foul-mouthed and decidedly unmaternal. The Stone household has a suspiciously large quantity of books lying about, and the family games of charades include such obscurities as the Truffaut film The Bride Wore Black. Furthermore, the Stone family Christmas ritual does not include a trip to Midnight Mass or any other religious observance, and the only faith anyone mentions is Buddhism. There's also the matter of the family name: Isn't Stone sort of Jewish? And, heaven forfend, they live in Massachusetts.
The Family Stone is the first feature by Thomas Bezucha, a one-time director of television commercials who based his script on his own upbringing in the college town of Amherst, Mass. He and the film's producers have taken a bit of a risk in coarsening the soft edges of the holiday family film genre with what is, upon reflection, a tale of a clan that seems to prefer the astringence of myrrh to the more pleasing properties of gold and frankincense.
The film opens with a pensive Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton) sitting alone in her careworn farmhouse, waiting for her grown children to arrive for a holiday with her and her husband (Craig T. Nelson). And in turn, they do: Thad (Ty Giordano), who is deaf in addition to being gay; Ben (Luke Wilson), the shaggy, pothead filmmaker; Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), the lonely and pregnant homemaker; and Amy (rising star Rachel McAdams), the exceptionally unfriendly youngest. All eyes, however, are on eldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney), who is coming home with a ridiculously uptight girlfriend, Meredith, whom the Stones are all poised to hate.
Sarah Jessica Parker's Meredith is an overdrawn piece of work who could be Carrie Bradshaw's evil twin. The woman seems to have grown a Blackberry pager where her heart should be, and she apparently wears Burberry where her L.L. Bean should be. Although Bezucha's script eventually shows some smarts and sensibility, the early scenes of Parker's Meredith repeatedly making an ass of herself are nearly ruinous for the film. At one point, Meredith wrecks a family dinner when she launches into a spiel about homosexuality and its origins, insulting Thad and his partner in the process. While it is possible to imagine a subtle version of this scene, it seems unlikely that a supposedly educated, widely traveled New Yorker would commit such a gross faux pas. Such characters generally harbor more genteel forms of bigotry, and a scene of this nature needs a more delicate touch. It may be that Bezucha lacks the requisite writing chops, but it's more likely that he's chopping his writing down in condescension to his audience.
Having made Meredith such a cartoonish joke, Bezucha then turns the tables by revealing the Stone clan to be relentless in their undisguised contempt for Meredith. In this film's vision of a starchy old New England family there's a resemblance to the sequence in The Aviator when Howard Hughes visits Kate Hepburn's allegedly broad-minded New England clan. "You don't care about money because you've always had it," Hughes finally retorted in that film's only memorable line. The Stones aren't quite as bad as the Hepburns, but only just.
Meredith responds to her chilly reception by taking a room at the inn, and when this proves to be an insufficient refuge from the hail of Stones, she summons her younger sister Julie, who conveniently is graceful, charming and guileless. Even better, she's played by Claire Danes, whose angular visage will put steam in anyone's hot buttered rum. In ways that couldn't be more obvious, Julie is a far more pleasing alternative to her so-called sister, a fact that does not go unnoticed by the Stone family, particularly its men.
For all of its heavy-handed schematicism, however, The Family Stone is just smart enough, and well-cast enough, to be a passable holiday outing. Despite the excesses of Bezucha's script, the Stones represent an American family that is strikingly recognizable and authentic in all their confused affection and spiteful behavior.
Still, Bezucha seems far too pleased with himself for including a son who is both deaf and gay. Thad is played as a blameless child, a little neutered puppy. He might as well be a mentally challenged elf for all the interest the film shows in him--in fact, the filmmaker puts Thad's testicles in the same closet as his partner's blackness. While it's nice to see actors in a Hollywood film using sign language to include a deaf character, the gesture becomes annoyingly self-congratulatory as Thad's fundamental irrelevance becomes clear.
The production design by Jane Ann Stewart, who designed Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, is unfussy in its presentation of a large, rambunctious family's cluttered homestead. The cast is mostly strong, although Dermot Mulroney never locates his character's animate core, one that Bezucha's script doesn't supply. Sarah Jessica Parker, saddled with a hopeless role, manages to make us sympathize with her plight at the hands of the Stones. Their behavior toward her, in fact, will go a long way toward supporting lazy, but politically useful, stereotypes about the liberal, secular blue state elite.
Diane Keaton, on the other hand, delivers a rich and complex performance as the haughty, demanding matriarch, alternately generous and stingy with her love. We learn fairly early that her Sybil is mortally ill with breast cancer, a prognosis that she hopes to conceal from her children for the duration of what she knows will be her last Christmas. In a striking Christmas Eve montage, scored to the strains of Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Craig T. Nelson's papa nuzzles his wife's mastectomy scar.
Such moments of genuine tenderness often get lost, however, in the tumult of slamming doors, pratfalls and unsurprising romantic entanglements. Still, the serrated caresses of The Family Stone could seem like Lifetime television against this week's blockbuster gorilla romance. The Family Stone doesn't restore the place of Christ in Christmas, but it does, at long last, reaffirm the place of love in this holiday and the other varieties of winter solstice celebrations.