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The Family Stone

The Family Stone (2005) is an emotional counterfeit. It feels honest and even uplifting while you're watching it, because the actors are great and the direction's well-intentioned and just-so. It's only later that you realize how thoroughly you've been played. This quirky dramedy is writer/director Thomas Bezucha's entry in the Wacky Family Holiday Reunion subgenre. It's a subgenre notably visited in 1995 by Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays — which The Family Stone almost plagiaristically resembles. (Claire Danes even appears in both films.) Bezucha's Stones are an upscale New England family of progressive bent. We know this because bratty college student Amy (Rachel McAdams) shows up at their annual Christmas reunion carrying an NPR tote bag. We know this because Mama Stone is played by Diane Keaton — in full-on, foul-mouthed, "I've Never Been an Easy Mother and I'm Proud of It" mode. (Why are people who boast of their "difficulty" always so insufferable?) And we know this because the first grown child to arrive is the beatific gay deaf son (Tyrone Giordano) who's about to adopt a child with his African-American lover (Brian J. White). There's nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with the fact that Giordano's character is so blandly perfect he might as well be wearing a pink halo. In the post-"Will & Grace" era, haven't we evolved past the two-dimensional Noble Gay Couple stereotype? Papa Stone (Craig T. Nelson) urges everyone to indulge a certain "generosity of spirit" — because, uh-oh, eldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney) is bringing his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to stay in the house. And she's — are you ready? — kind of uptight! One of the conventions of the Wacky Family Holiday Reunion is to take the uptight character — usually the female Yuppie, for some reason — and essentially break her spirit, usually by having the more free-spirited characters "shock" her and verbally beat her like a piñata. And this is where the Stone family — for whom we're clearly supposed to root — becomes too hypocritical to love. Apparently based almost entirely on first impressions — perhaps because Meredith wears her hair pulled back too tight and clears her throat a lot — pretty much every family member privately begs Everett not to marry her. They undercut her at every opportunity. They laugh at her pratfalls. They let her string herself out when she puts her foot in her mouth. A mere 20 minutes into the film, the Stones are horrible, smug, self-satisfied people for whom "generosity of spirit" apparently means "we will mercilessly abuse you until your lifestyle aligns with our own."

Perhaps sensing this problem, Bezucha tries to re-stack his thematic deck mid-film. Meredith suddenly breaks character and starts saying truly horrible things. The movie starts laying on scene after scene of treacle — up to and including characters saying "I love you" and "Merry Christmas, Daddy" while backed by a moist soundtrack. Good Lord, there's even a surprise illness. But it's too late. Again, it should be stresseed that the acting in The Family Stone is superb throughout. The cast earns several genuine laughs. And many scenes, taken individually, are doozies, such as when Nelson caresses a scar on his wife's chest, or how gently beer-swilling documentarian Ben Stone (Luke Wilson, playing the only true Democrat in the bunch) takes Meredith aside and urges her to fly her freak flag. (Of course, in this film's didactic grammar, "flying your freak flag" means taking the rubber band out of your hair and getting drunk.) But these fine, funny moments don't interconnect. Characters go from sweet to mean to forgiving without earning the transitions. And it gets ridiculous after Danes shows up as Meredith's sister. She's Stone-approved — because she writes arts grants and looks cute in a stocking cap — and she strikes up an insta-chemistry with Everett that creates wacky complications that would seem unsubtle on "Jerry Springer." Wacky is fine. But wacky and emotionally dishonest? Forget it.

*          *          *

Fox's DVD release of The Family Stone features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a commentary by Sarah Jessica Parker and Dermot Mulroney, a second track with writer/directorThomas Bezucha, producer Michael London, Editor Jeffrey Ford, and production designer Jane Ann Stewart, six deleted scenes with optional commentary, a casting session (8 min.), the film premiere (6 min.), a cast Q&A (8 min.), "Behind the Scenes" (17 min.), a gag reel (5 min.), a recipie, and a trailer gallery. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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