Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Family Stone

Posted By on Wed, Dec 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

Having a pair of open-minded, tolerant, pot-smoking liberal parents may seem like a dream — to some, at least — but in the new holiday comedy, The Family Stone, it feels more like a nightmare.

As Sybil Stone, the loving, Volvo-driving mother of five grown children, Diane Keaton is meant to be a brassy, nurturing matriarch, but she comes off as a controlling, smothering terror, more like Jane Fonda’s character from this year’s terrible Monster-in-Law. It’s a fatal flaw that Sybil isn’t a more sympathetic character, because it throws a wrench into the movie’s convoluted, group-hug family dynamic.

Like something out of a Folgers commercial, the movie opens with the Stone parents welcoming their five kids back home for the holidays. There’s the catty, alt-rock-T-shirt-wearing Amy (Rachel McAdams), laid-back stoner filmmaker Ben (Luke Wilson), eight-months-pregnant Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), deaf, gay Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and the upwardly mobile Everett (Dermot Mulroney). The clan is up in arms when Everett brings his bitchy, uptight, would-be fiancee Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to their Christmas festivities. She’s everything the Stones aren’t. Dressed in formalwear and jabbering away on her cell phone, she’s simply not the girl for the granite-jawed Everett, and Mama Stone isn’t about to give up her dead mother’s wedding ring so he can propose to the ice queen.

It goes without saying that everyone in the movie eventually welcomes Meredith, but only after she’s knocked back a couple of beers with Ben, and her arty, doe-eyed sister Julie (Claire Danes) arrives, providing an easy out for the conflicted Everett. More shamelessly, writer-director Thomas Bezucha’s script introduces Sybil’s breast cancer early in the film, and then continues to milk it for tears any time there’s an emotional dry spot (which is often).

With their NPR tote bags, Land’s End pajamas and Pottery Barn decor, the Stones are meant to be the kind of warm, inviting, problem-free family we’d all like to have — the same way the Keatons were on television’s Family Ties. But they’re so aggressively tolerant, so locked into their own politically correct way of thinking, the movie achieves the opposite effect, and you start wishing that you, too, could escape their suffocating sanctimony. Even though they’re supposed to be easygoing, nothing rolls off the Stones’ backs, not even the mildly insensitive (and predictable) comments Meredith makes at the dinner table.

The cast tries to strike up a jovial camaraderie in an effort to save the material, and McAdams and Wilson almost succeed in rescuing the movie from its pathos. But in the end, The Family Stone rests on the performances of its two female leads: the maudlin, pleading Keaton and the shrill, irritating Parker. No one — liberal, conservative or otherwise — should be subjected to either of them during the holidays.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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