The Family Stone is a holiday drama which reveals the intricate layers of an enlarged family as everyone comes home for Christmas. What could have been dull, schmaltz-induced pap or vaguely amusing National Lampoon-style comedy turns out to be a delightful surprise.
The opening credits are cleverly presented as a series of Christmas paintings, with the final one being the Stone family house. As is slowly revealed, all is not as merry and contented as it seems. The three Stone brothers and two sisters return to their family home in sleepy, snowy Massachusetts, with their various partners. The character of Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), who plays the eldest son Everettâ€™s (Dermot Mulroney) girlfriend, gives us an outsiderâ€™s view of entering the family home for the first time. She offers both a kaleidescopic view of the family and also as an antagonist to draw reactions from the various siblings and parents.
It becomes immediately clear that the charismatic, slightly offbeat Stones dislike the rather dull and businesslike Meredith. Her attempts to interact with them veer from the hilarious to the cringeworthy. The mother, Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton), and her youngest daughter, Amy (Rachel McAdams), in particular are at odds with Meredith. When Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), the father of the family, attempts to defend Meredith in a private moment with his wife, Sybil bitterly retorts, â€˜You stick a spoon up any monkeyâ€™s ass and itâ€™s bound to say please and thank youâ€™. Sybilâ€™s hostility to Meredith is reflected in Amy, who uses a game of charades to portray Meredith as racist.
The rest of the family less dislike Meredith as simply realise that Everett does not love her. There is the middle brother, Ben (Luke Wilson), a happy-go-lucky charmer, a role which shouldnâ€™t surprise anyone familiar with Wilsonâ€™s previous work. The youngest brother, Thad Stone (Tyrone Giordano), is gay and deaf, both of which further alienate Meredith. The fact that everyone else knows how to sign apart from her makes her more of an isolated figure, and she also reveals her underlying prejudices about homosexuals in a heated discussion with Thadâ€™s partner, Patrick Thomas (Brian White).
Things come to a head and Meredith leaves the house in tears, books into a local B&B, and requests her sisterâ€™s reassuring presence. This introduces us to Julie (Claire Danes), who is a million miles from the uptight, frigid Meredith. Complications ensue as Everett and Julie are drawn to each other, whilst less convincingly, Ben and Meredith start to hit it off. The various emotions, confrontations and ensuing tensions all play out at a nice, slightly frenetic pace, with plenty of comic asides. Director and writer Thomas Bezucha expertly balances the lighter moments with the heavier moments, and in some instances weaves one into the other seamlessly. A fine example of this is Everett and Benâ€™s fight under the kitchen table, which goes from playful to pathos as Everett admits he doesnâ€™t love Meredith.
Diane Keatonâ€™s Sybil is the dominant figure of the house. It is soon uncovered that the reason she is so hostile towards Meredith, and is so on edge throughout the opening scenes, is because she is suffering from a recurrence of a serious illness. As members of the family slowly learn this, a lingering sadness mixes in with the Christmas spirit, to give an air of meloncholy to the the filmâ€™s mood. Another interesting motif is the use of snow as a sort of reassuring presence. Ben has a dream about Meredith in the snow, Kelly and Ben have a heart to heart in the snowed over football field, and Sybilâ€™s last line, delivered rather poignantly, is, simply, â€˜Itâ€™s snowingâ€™.
The Family Stone is a bittersweet ensemble drama, which weaves an intricate portrait of a family strained by grief amidst a normally celebratory time of year. Dermot Mulroney is superb as Everett, showing that heâ€™s a better actor than the male mannequinn in female star vehicles such as My Best Friendâ€™s Wedding and The Wedding Date. Jessica Parker too breaks stereotype as the emotionally repressed Meredith. Keaton and McAdams give a bite to proceedings as the strong female presence, and Wilsonâ€™s laconic, laid-back charm fits in nicely. As he remarks to the uptight Meredith in the local bar, â€˜You have a freak flag, you just donâ€™t fly itâ€™.
The only real downside is the finale. The various unresolved relationships are accelerated and connected into place like some sort of syrupy jigsaw. Whilst Everett and Julieâ€™s attraction to each other comes across strongly, the other partnerships seems slightly more contrived. The other strange note is that the the remaining sister, Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), is mostly disregarded by the script and is rarely involved in the drama. However, these are relatively minor quibbles, and it should be noted that even in the Hollywood-type finale, the film is anchored by grief.
This an excellent film that uses Christmas as a setting, not as a raison dâ€™etre. The drama unfolds against this snowy, festive backdrop, and is well worth watching.