Title: The Family Stone
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: Thomas Bezucha
Screenwriters: Thomas Bezucha
Starring: Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes
How long has it been since Diane Keaton was the best thing about a movie? The First Wives Club, maybe, for whatever that was worth? Manhattan Murder Mystery? The Family Stone, Thomas Bezucha’s promising debut, has its ups and downs, but Keaton remains a delightful, sad, smart, human force of nature. I don’t think I have liked a movie character more this year (well, maybe King Kong). Bezucha puts Keaton’s Sybil Stone through a few rather silly, contrived motions, but she — both the actress, and, to give Bezucha credit, Sybil herself — inevitably comes through for us.
I am sure that I am not the first to notice that the plot of The Family Stone essentially switches around that of Meet the Parents. But while the gimmick in Meet the Parents pretty much bound it to being a screwball comedy of embarrassment, the conceptual reversal allows The Family Stone to do — or try to do — more. By taking the point of view of an outsider, it tries to give us insight into a rich, complicated family dynamic, one light on the surface but brimming with history, and undercurrents, and implications.
What’s interesting about Bezucha’s approach to this is where he puts our loyalties. The predictable choice would have been to make Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) — here, the uptight, insufferable ass-stick that Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings home to his family for the holidays — our entrance into the film, and the most sympathetic personage in the cast. The family, the theory goes, would be rude, uncouth and repellent — until, of course, we learn that they’re that way because “they’re all they have,” and hey, maybe they’re not that bad after all.
That’s the idea, but Bezucha has something else in mind. Our sympathy is with the family from the beginning, and Meredith seems precisely like what the Stones fear — wrong for Everett, and also wrong for, oh, any remotely sane male human being. Not only is she uptight, not only does she have a ridiculous throat-clearing tick that’s “like she’s digging for clams,” but she is virtually impossible to be around for any length of time, and indeed, after a few scenes with her in the spotlight, we start to feel it.
The Stones, meanwhile — the hilarious Sybil, her relaxed, liberal college professor husband (Craig T. Nelson), their deaf, gay son (Ty Giordano, who is possibly the most irritating actor to ever set foot on the screen, and who makes Parker’s character seem downright adorable), their pregnant daughter (Elizabeth Reiser), their hilariously mean other daughter (Rachel McAdams), their recovering hippie son (Luke Wilson) — begin as an intelligent, charming, likably loose-limbed collective and add depth, as we learn secrets, background and history. Much of it is by implication, though some surprisingly vivid — we never quite learn why Everett wants to badly to be the prodigal son, but we get a pretty good idea. And if, at the end, Bezucha indulges too much in cinematic twists of fate and romantic silliness, I liked these characters enough to forgive the slips.
The problem with this approach, to the extent that there is one, is that while we take to the Stone family from the beginning, we are also required to come to like poor misbegotten Meredith. That’s hard — the movie does such a good job of establishing her as a simple, humorless bitch that when Wilson’s Ben Stone tells her, “you have a freak flag, you just don’t fly it,” I neither believed him, nor cared what kind of flag she had, or flew. My sympathies were so firmly with the Stones (Giordano notwithstanding) that I had trouble acceding to the notion that hey, maybe Meredith isn’t so bad after all. Suffice it to say that this did not bear well on the way I received the movie’s conclusion.
Meanwhile, The Family Stone manages to be a terrific screwball comedy in its own right, like a more erudite Meet the Parents. The charades scene is bound to be remembered, and watch Keaton’s performance when her son asks her for her mother’s wedding ring to present to Meredith. It’s a brilliant piece of acting and writing — as real as it is zany and amusing. The last act of The Family Stone moves into homily mode and loses its edge a bit, which is a shame, but until then it’s an unusually strong, thoughtful Christmas movie — worthy counterprogramming to the enormous monkey that should otherwise be ravaging the multiplex.