The Family Stone wants to be many things. It wants to be funny and touching and warm-hearted, like any good holiday film, but aspiration is not achievement and The Family Stone proves it.
Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, the story starts with Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) bringing his uptight girlfriend, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), home for Christmas to meet his family. The Stones take an immediate disliking to Meredith -- she's corporate, they're earthy -- forcing her into a downward spiral where she tries ever harder to win their approval. Sort of like Meet the Parents... at Christmastime... without the laughs.
Bezucha scores points for keeping the story moving, as Meredith's gaffes come in waves. She has a prudish hang-up about sleeping with Everett in his parents' home, so she demands to sleep in another room, forcing Amy Stone (Rachel McAdams) to sleep on the couch. And instead of speaking in a normal voice when she meets Thad Stone, who's deaf and reads lips, Meredith shouts, as if her raised voice would help him hear. She also has this grating tic of clearing her throat when she's nervous or anxious. The problem is, none of this is particularly funny. Sure, a few jokes hit, but far more miss.
Beyond that, Bezucha never seems to be sure who he wants the audience to identify with. Whereas in Meet the Parents the audience is clearly meant to see things through Greg Focker's eyes and feel sympathy for him when things go wrong, The Family Stone confuses this arrangement. Bezucha presents the Stones as a picture of the enlightened family, a shining collection of progressive, accepting attitudes. Yeah, they can be petty -- so can anyone -- but they're good people, smug and beyond reproach. It's Meredith who has problems.
This has the unintended effect of barricading every possible avenue of sympathy. It's impossible to like the Stones, because they're so pleased with themselves, and it's impossible to like Meredith, because her character has been constructed for the sole purpose of eliciting the audience's disdain. Who do you root for in a situation like this? No one, unfortunately.
About halfway through the proceedings, things are going so badly for Meredith that she asks her sister, Julie (Claire Danes), to join her at the Stones for support. But instead of actually lending encouragement, Julie forms an instant bond with Everett and the rest of the Stones. Now Everett must choose between uptight Meredith, whom his family hates, and dreamy Julie, whom his family adores. Throw in Everett's pot-smoking brother, Ben (Luke Wilson), to teach Meredith a lesson about loosening up, and a bout of breast cancer for Mrs. Stone (Diane Keaton), and you've got a perfectly snarled plot with exactly zero likable characters.
Nevertheless, despite its various problems, The Family Stone is actually a fairly well-acted movie. Keaton is perfectly suited for her earth-mother role and she clearly glories in her performance, winking and smiling and clucking her tongue all the way through the film. Mulroney is the lone underperformer. He simply doesn't possess the screen presence required of his role. You've got to be one helluva guy to get between two sisters, especially when those two sisters are Parker and Danes, and Dermot Mulroney isn't that guy.
But The Family Stone's problems aren't his. Its problems lie with a cast of characters who treat love cheaply and each other badly. Who wants to spend the holidays with people like that?
No cookies for Santa this year.