The Family Stone

Posted: Dec 21, 2005 12:01 AM

Pot-smoking, gay adoption, and mothers gleefully discussing how their daughters lost their virginity. Ahh, just what the Christmas season is all about. What? Not in your family?

Then you must not work in the film industry. Because apparently there, like doorbells and sleighbells and schnitzel with noodle, these things add up to a heartwarming holiday.

The Family Stone is yet another case of movie marketing bait-and-switch. Playing on Christmas nostalgia, which most Americans share, the trailer promised a rollicking, good-natured comedy about family foibles and the frustrating moments that eventually become our favorite memories.

What the film delivers is a ham-fisted primer on blue-state values.

Eldest child Everett Stone (eye-candy Dermott Mulroney) was reared in the lap of liberal utopia. His parents are the kind of hip, anything-goes types that all teenagers wish they had and adults are glad they didn’t. In fact, every member of Everett’s family is terribly, terribly “cool.”

Sybil (Diane Keaton), Everett’s mom, is particularly progressive. “I tried to make all my boys gay,” Sybil tells a Christmas dinner gathering. She’s also fond of singing out, “No pot in the house!” the way most mothers tell their kids to wipe their feet as well as dishing out all the details of her children’s sex lives in language usually reserved for gansta rap.

True to liberal form, Everett’s dad (Craig T. Nelson), a tenured humanities professor, hovers around the edges of the story but doesn’t contribute much of consequence.

Then there’s Everett’s brother Thad, who is not only homosexual but also handicapped and involved in an interracial relationship with a black partner with whom he is adopting a baby. Surprisingly, Thad does not work as a model for Benetton.

Finally we have little sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) and little brother Ben (Luke Wilson). We know Amy’s cool despite the fact that she has a habit of publicly humiliating people she doesn’t care for, because she doesn’t brush her hair, and carries a burlap NPR tote bag instead of a purse. We know Ben’s cool, because, at nearly 40, he is the one who needs to be told, “No pot in the house!”

It is home to this Rockwellian portrait that Everett, the only Stone to get both a haircut and a real job, brings his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker).

The Stone family immediately (and, we are supposed to believe, justifiably) hates Meredith, because she works for—gasp!—a corporation, enjoys eating in nice restaurants, and is a bit stiff with the Stones when Everett first introduces them.

In fact, within 15 minutes of meeting her, this open-minded, tolerant clan is begging Everett not to marry her. Interestingly enough, for such a left-minded film, most of the qualities used to paint Meredith in a negative light are traditionally masculine qualities—i.e., she’s career-driven, decisive and gets tough with employees in order to get results. It seems writer/director Thomas Bezucha took into consideration the sensibilities of every Democratic lobbying group, except the feminists.

Abandoning their pacifist principles, the family declares open season on Meredith, haranguing her for questioning the existence of the gay gene and barking at her to stop talking when she sincerely questions the morality of desiring gay children. Like some kind of New England hippie gang, they jump her by taking turns verbally beating her down.

But not to worry: if Meredith can learn to let her “freak flag fly,” as brother Ben advises, then—oh, lucky her—she too may finally get to be a member of this heartless clan.

Perhaps on some level, Bezucha realized how mean-spirited and hypocritical the Stones would come across. This might account for why he weaves in hokey plot turns that would only be underdeveloped in a sitcom.

After brief walks in the snow, characters fall so desperately in love they have to chase each other down at bus depots and beg each other not to go. And a distracting and unnecessary subplot, in which one character reveals she has cancer, seems to be present for no other purpose than to generate sympathy for a family that is otherwise completely lacking it. Too bad for Bezucha, the Stones come off like self-important jerks in spite of the disease.

As far as the acting goes, everyone except Mulroney turns in technically good performances. Yet Keaton’s gives off a repelling lack of insight. She relishes her slash-and-burn tirades so thoroughly, so you get the feeling that, despite her character’s horrifically graceless behavior, she’s under the impression she’s playing an appealing woman.

The only reason any major critic could applaud this film (and I’ve been stunned at how many have) is if they personally approve of its politics. Otherwise, with the exception of a smattering of genuine laughs, The Family Stone is a schlocky, manipulative bore.