The Stones could be your next-door neighbors. For that matter, they could be your own family. Parents Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) and Sybil (Diane Keaton) live in a nice suburban home. They have raised four wonderful children: Everett (Dermot Mulroney), Ben (Luke Wilson), Amy (Rachel McAdams), and Thad (Tyrone Giordano), who is hearing-impaired. The clan gets together to celebrate holidays and special occasions. The Family Stone brings us into this home on one particular Christmas.
The key event for the group this holiday is that Everett is bringing home his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). Amy has already met Meredith while visiting Everett in New York. She doesn’t like her brother’s girlfriend, believing Meredith to be snooty and stiff. The others can’t wait to glimpse the woman for themselves. For her part, Meredith is worried about making a good impression. She should, because the family is already expecting the worst. They get it, too; Meredith clearly doesn’t fit in with this family. They seem to take an unspoken delight in making comments at her expense. The fact that she’s out of place amuses them. These are not bad people, though; they simply are so close-knit that any outsider has to prove his or her way into their inner circle.
After suffering through a string of humiliations, Meredith calls her sister Julie (Claire Danes) for support. Things don’t get any better with her arrival, though. Where Meredith is stiff, Julie is lively and likeable. The family takes to her immediately. Things come to a head during a tense dinner scene, where Meredith inadvertently makes an offensive comment that the Stones take as homophobic. (Thad has brought his male partner home for Christmas.) Sybil openly worries that Everett is going to ask her to make good on a promise she made years earlier. She once told him that he could have her mother’s wedding ring when he met the woman he would marry. Since she doesn’t approve of Meredith, she doesn’t want to hand over the ring. (The film’s title refers not only to the family itself but also to the heirloom.) When his mother refuses, Everett is resentful.
Many interesting things go on below the surface. Sybil and Kelly discuss their reasons for disliking Meredith, some of which actually make sense. They also wonder whether Sybil’s recent bout with breast cancer has spurred Everett to suddenly consider marriage. Everett, on the other hand, can’t figure out why his family isn’t more receptive and welcoming to his intended. Later, there’s some interesting interplay between Meredith and Ben, who is more tolerant of her than the others. “You have a freak flag,” he tells her. “You just don’t fly it.” She knows that he’s right.
There have been a lot of movies about families reuniting for the holidays, and I very rarely like any of them. These films often seem to go overboard, making every family member incessantly wacky and then having them all bicker for two hours before manufacturing a heartwarming ending. One of the things I like about The Family Stone is that the characters seem real. They may have some quirks, but they’re realistic quirks, not those devised by an overly clever screenwriter. The Stones are smart people. They are well-spoken, insightful, and perceptive about one another. That makes them worth watching.
The situations that the Stones find themselves in are generally relatable too. Rather than trying to create some “big” crisis, the screenplay (by Thomas Bezucha, who also directed) examines the routine but compelling details of family life: not liking someone’s girlfriend, worrying about a parent’s health, wondering who one family member is going to date, etc. The movie does not need some big payoff; it is content to capture the little things that are part and parcel of being part of a family. I identified with many of the things in this story and I suspect others will too.
The exception to this is the romantic merry-go-round that takes up a significant portion of time in the film’s final third. The story asks us to believe that people fall in and out of love with each other in a matter of days. I didn’t buy the way certain relationships were swapped so quickly. This, combined with a slapstick chase around the kitchen near the end, feels out of place with the everyday appeal of the other plot threads.
If that doesn’t quite work, many other things do, including the performances. This cast works together well, making the Stones seem like a family and not just a group of assembled actors. They have joint chemistry. Diane Keaton is perfect as the mother, who has a penchant for naughtiness; she openly discusses sexual matters in front of her children, partially as a way of kidding around with them. Sarah Jessica Parker does a good job of playing uptight and annoying, which is a backhanded compliment, I know, but I mean it with the best of intentions. Luke Wilson does something funny with Ben, making his too-laid-back demeanor a response to everyone else’s extraversion.
My favorite performance comes from Rachel McAdams, who continues a hot streak that began with Mean Girls last year and extended to Wedding Crashers and Red Eye this year. She plays Amy as a rebel and a cynic – the type of girl who enjoys getting under the skin of other people. When Meredith proclaims not to care what Amy thinks about her, Amy simply smiles and says: “Of course you do.” It’s one of those moments where someone very passive-aggressively lets the air out of someone else’s argument. There’s also a very funny subplot involving Amy’s attempts to avoid the guy who deflowered – and still likes - her. We definitely sense that romance would soften Amy’s edges, which is precisely why she doesn’t want to give into it.
All of these performances combined with a smart screenplay add up to a better-than-average familial comedy/drama. The Family Stone ends on a poignant note, but there is no big message here. The beauty of the film is its subtlety, the way it says that being part of a family is a joy unlike any other. There are good times and bad times, ups and downs. Knowing that you’re not alone through any of it is a gift worth cherishing.
( out of four)
The Family Stone is rated PG-13 for some sexual content including dialogue, and drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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