Logic tells me that any film where I can predict exactly what’s going to happen long before it does — right down to pegging what the final shot will be — ought to smell from herring. Yet there’s a time and a place for everything. The Family Stone is one of those films that succeeds not because it surprises you, but because it does what you want it to do — and it does so pretty well.
If you don’t know what you’re getting into with this film from the moment you walk into the theater, then you haven’t seen many movies. Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney, Must Love Dogs) brings his girlfriend (Saraha Jessica Parker) home for the holidays (sounds like a movie title …oh, wait, it is a movie title) to meet his functionally dysfunctional family. His girlfriend, Meredith Morton, is severely uptight (even her name is severe sounding). Said family is the antithesis of uptight.
The matriarch, Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton), is a quirky, ultra-liberal sort who dotes on her even quirkier brood, including slacker-stoner son Ben (Luke Wilson), acerbic daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams), vaguely troubled daughter Sussanah (Elizabeth Reaser, Stay), and — for the piece de resistance of outredom — deaf gay son Thad (Tyrone Giordano, A Lot Like Love) and his black boyfriend (Brian White, Mr. 3000). Dad (Craig T. Nelson, The Incredibles) wanders through the lot of them with a mixture of gentle authority and bemusement.
In this crowd, Everett seems a lot like an accountant who accidentally stumbled onto the set, was mistaken for one of the actors and is good-naturedly playing along. Meredith, on the other hand, might as well be from Mars. Everyone is antagonistic toward her — except Ben, who barely keeps from directly hitting on her. Not surprisingly, Meredith calls in reinforcements, which in this case means her completely not-uptight sister, Julie (Claire Danes).
Oh, I almost forgot: There’s something weighing on Sybil’s mind. We can tell that she has a secret sorrow because she occasionally stares off into space and looks wistful. Yep, it’s pure formula, and it’s dealing from a stacked deck of almost unbelievable proportions. But the cast is so likable that it’s hard not to respond as they go through their paces.
The film takes a while to hit its stride. When early on I found myself focusing on a vintage pink Pyrex mixing bowl of Granny Smith apples on the kitchen table, I was prepared for a movie that couldn’t even hold my attention, much less entertain me. Blessedly, things do pick up once writer-director Thomas Bezucha gets the basic setup of characters established. What he lacks in creative invention, he partly makes up for with sheer drive, which occasionally topples over into very agreeable farce. He also stages one surprisingly moving sequence that intercuts the various characters with Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis, which is playing on the TV.
Sure, everyone ends up with everyone you think they will and the cycle of life goes on (at least as the movies tend to see it). It’s all old, familiar stuff, but there’s a reason old, familiar stuff became old, familiar stuff — sometimes it’s good stuff. And a lot of The Family Stone is just that. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content including dialogue, and drug references.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke