Thursday, December 8, 2005

Review: The Family Stone (2005)

The Family Stone
102 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

The Family Stone is an odd duck, as it is undermined by its own cleverness, even while that cleverness earns points for moxy. It is subtle in its characters, yet overly broad in its plot mechanics. One word of warning though- do not be fooled by the light and fluffy advertising materials for this film, which make it look like a reverse-formed Meet The Parents. While the skeletal outline merits such comparison (instead of a wacky male going to meet his girlfriend's uptight, rigid family, it's a rigid, uptight female going to meet her boyfriend's wacky family), it is a far more dramatic and far darker story that really never tries to be funny in the traditional sense.

The plot, to wit... Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a workaholic nervous wreck, nervous because she is spending Christmas with the family of her longtime boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulroney). Her fears turn out to be well founded as she is more or less ambushed
by the Stone family, using her uptight nature and overly formal manner as weapons against her in their slightly frumpier, jollier household. Desperate for backup, Meredith calls on her sister, Julie (Claire Danes), which only makes matters worse as the family seems to like Julie far more than Meredith. As the weekend progresses, lines are drawn, confessions are made, and the reasons for the Stone's behavior are made potently clear. If the previews resemble Meet The Parents, then the synopsis above will likely remind viewers of You Can't Take It With You, without the element of class warfare.

But, while the plot spins off in often-wild digressions and often- forced directions, the acting and the character development keep it grounded. Every single character is played by an esteemed and well-liked actor, and they are all in top form. Diane Keaton plays the matriarch, aptly named Sybil, as she has several sides to her, using soothing, maternal cliches to dish out brutal truths and accusations. Craig T. Nelson shines in a rare lead role as a sympathetic patriarch who tries to remain uninvolved by the character assassination until it crosses the line. Dermot Mulroney wins points by not being the usual blank slate the occupies the role of the 'prize child' (think Teri Polo's thinly written role in the Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers), and actually having a backbone as he stands up to his siblings and his mother. Luke Wilson also shines in a subtle performance as the oldest brother of the family, a proverbial black sheep who immediately sympathizes with Meredith's plight. Finally Rachel McAdams revels in the chance to play a normal, grouchy little brat of a sister, after playing several versions of 'the ideal woman' in the last couple years. Here she is vain, petty, and often the instigator, and she obviously loves every minute of it.

At the very least, The Family Stone is a triumph as an acting treat, and on that level alone it is worth seeing. From a story and plot point of view, however, it flounders. I won't reveal the overly complicated storyline, except to state that it becomes tripped up in its own would-be cleverness. When the film sticks to emotional truths and character, it succeeds. The tangled web of conflicting story lines is merely a burden, a burden that the film cannot overcome. Bonus points are nonetheless earned by the subtly of certain plot developments and that fact that crucial information is delivered visually rather than through expository rants.

In the end, The Family Stone is worth seeing for what it attempts, regardless of whether it always succeeds. It attempts to be a different sort of family dramedy. It attempts to be a different kind of holiday movie. It attempts to be a romance of a most unusual sort. The effort is appreciated and the characters are far richer and deeper than is the norm for this sort of film. And the quality character work is backed up by strong acting by a strong ensemble. Thus, despite my misgivings about how the story works itself out, the film is worth seeing for the strong acting, and several worthwhile emotional beats that arise out of character and honest feeling. The Family Stone is a big, messy movie about complicated, messy people and their messy lives.

Grade: B

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