The Family Stone (review)

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Home for the Holidays

So, I was raving to a friend about this great new movie I’d just seen, The Family Stone, how it’s about this big wacky family getting together for Christmas– And she stopped me right there with a moan and said, Oh God, it’s not like that Jodie Foster movie Home for the Holidays, is it? And I said, Why, yes, it’s exactly like that, but even better. She moaned again and said, Oh, I hate that movie.

Look, if you hate Home for the Holidays, then by all means avoid The Family Stone, because this is more of the same, only funnier and sadder and sillier and more poignant and more everything good and homey and warm and comfortable and family style and like a big plate of hot-from-the-oven Christmas cookies spiked with walnuts to cut the sweetness. Who’d want that? But if laughing till you cry — and sometimes crying till you laugh — and hanging out with a crazy, loving, freespirited bunch of overeducated Northeastern blue-state liberals sounds like a good time to you, then you’re gonna love this movie.

It’s true, it’s not like you can’t predict, in a general sense, what’s gonna happen when escapee-to-high-powered–New York Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney: Must Love Dogs, The Wedding Date) returns home to his snow-dusted Currier-and-Ives New England college-burg hometown for Christmas with his new girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker: State and Main): of course they’re gonna hate her, as she predicts, because they’re all soft and cuddly and huggy and prone to wearing flannel pj’s and she’s hard and brittle and pointy-edged and her stiletto heels look more like weapons than footwear. And the moment Everett’s laid-back professional-stoner dude of a little brother, Ben (Luke Wilson: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Around the World in 80 Days), lays his eyes on her and melts, well, you sorta know in which direction these impossibly opposite people — Ben and Meredith — are gonna go, too.

But that’s okay, cuz Stone is not about keeping us in suspense about what’s gonna happen but about meeting these people and delving into their lives and their secrets and discovering that they’re genuine. Not one of them is easy to classify: no one’s perfect and no one’s a villain, not even Meredith, for whom we actually begin to feel a little sorry, because families this close-knit and loving can exude their own kind of tyranny, can be their own kind of monstrous in their fierce protection of one another, and poor Meredith has stepped right into the middle of that. It’s not that Meredith isn’t what matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton: Something’s Gotta Give, Town and Country) had in mind for a spouse for her eldest, Everett, and that’s why she won’t hand over a family heirloom engagement ring for him to propose to Meredith with — it’s that Sybil sees that Everett isn’t happy with her. Or is he? There’s a tricky line that The Family Stone walks, wildly successfully, a line on one side of which is sympathy for an adult child’s need for self-determination, and on the other side of which is sympathy for passionately vocal family members — parents, siblings, whomever — who believe someone they love is making a huge mistake.

Writer/director Thomas Bezucha has come seemingly out of nowhere with this smart and insightful flick, which is just mean enough not to be sappy, and just ardent enough not to be bitter — like real life, it’s a jumble of the kind of delicious emotional messes that remind you that you’re alive. But his biggest coup, after his script, is his cast, which is extraordinary — movies like this one only work when the cast is fabulous, and this may be the best ensemble of the year, a combination of veterans given the chance to stretch into more complicated roles than they’re often allowed — including Mulroney and Craig T. Nelson (The Incredibles, Wag the Dog) as the Stone dad, Kelly — and relative newcomers who shine — including Tyrone Giordano as Thad Stone and Brian White as his husband, Patrick — and two exceptionally talented young actresses, one of whom, Claire Danes (Stage Beauty, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), has been indispensable for years, and the other of whom, Rachel McAdams (Red Eye, Wedding Crashers), has only this year, in a handful of terrific performances, proven herself so. (They play, respectively, Meredith’s sister, Julie, who shows up to lend some moral support, and Stone baby Amy.)

The big test of a movie like The Family Stone is: Would you spend time with these people? As messed up and nutty as they all are, I’d visit for Christmas anytime.

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