The world of “The Family Stone” is so bizarrely idealized that you have to wonder: Is writer/director Thomas Bezucha so insulated from the real world that this is what he thinks life is like? Or is he familiar with reality and putting forth this fantasy as a suggestion of how he thinks life OUGHT to be?
Here is the world of the movie. The Stones are an upscale, well-educated liberal family (one of the daughters carries an NPR tote bag) who live in a picturesque New England town, where they sit around in nice sweaters drinking hot cocoa in front of roaring fireplaces in their charming Victorian living room. One grown son is gay, a fact which his parents have never had the slightest problem with, welcoming his partner like one of the family and vehemently defending him when an evil non-liberal person questions whether life would have been easier for him if he had been straight. Another son brings his fiancee home for the holidays, and Mom is bemused when the girl doesn’t think it appropriate to share a bedroom with him. (“Are you trying to tell me you don’t [have sex]?!” Mom asks.) Dad and another son smoke pot together, and it’s considered just one of those silly “guy things,” like watching football or taking apart cars. Somewhere, Sean Hannity’s head is exploding. (Not that that’s a bad thing.)
What’s interesting is that none of this dreamy liberalism figures into the story at all. The film isn’t “about” liberalism; the family’s moral values are presented as minor establishing details, the same as you might mention So-and-So went to Penn State or Such-and-Such works as a pediatrician. Yet it’s hard NOT to notice how idealized it is, and how the story would not have worked if it had been put in a more realistic setting.
As it is, the story does work, and the film is a sweet, Christmas-y kind of comedy where everybody eventually finds love and acceptance. I suppose if you’re going to create an imaginary “perfect” world, where better than in a Christmas movie?
The Stones are a tight-knit family of grownups, save for one teenage daughter still living at home. One of the sons, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), is attempting to bring an outsider into this world: his fiancee, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), a businesslike woman with her hair in a bun and her cell phone affixed to her ear. The teenage daughter, Amy (Rachel McAdams), met Meredith once, and she has reported her findings back to the family. Those findings? WE DON’T LIKE HER.
Meredith faces an uphill battle anyway, trying to worm her way into a closed community. Her frigidity and shyness don’t help matters, nor does her general conservatism. But Everett thinks he loves her, and he wants his family to love her, and really, there’s no reason not to. For a family of liberals, the Stones sure are unaccepting of newcomers.
But anyway. We get the usual “Meet the Parents” shenanigans where Meredith says or does just the wrong thing and manages to annoy everyone. In some cases, this is due to sabotage by Amy, who during a game of charades manipulates events so that Meredith will appear to be a racist. In other cases, it’s due to the family’s powerhouse matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton) having a specific idea of what Everett’s fiancee should be like and refusing to relinquish that vision. (Sybil’s husband, played by Craig T. Nelson, is a much weaker force in the family.)
Things heat up when another son, Ben (Luke Wilson), the hippiest of the family, shows up and is actually NICE to the stiff, formal Meredith. She relaxes a bit when Ben takes her to a bar and gets her drunk (on that most low-falutin’ of drinks, beer). He tells her, “You have a freak flag. You just don’t wave it.” The point? Loosen up. The real point? Be more like us.
Things heat up even more when Meredith calls her sister Julie (Claire Danes) for support and Julie drops everything and comes to town, where the Stones immediately adore her. (I guess it helps not to be engaged to one of their sons.) Entanglements both romantic and ideological ensue.
This is by and large a merry comedy, though Bezucha (whose only prior film was 2001’s little-seen “Big Eden”) gives it a melancholy life-or-death subplot whose value I’m not convinced of. The repartee among the family members is warm and witty, and surprisingly believable. It’s particularly interesting how, when in the presence of their deaf brother (Tyrone Giordano, who is deaf in real life), they speak in a mix of dialogue and sign language. It reminds me of films about immigrant families where the children combine English and their native tongue, often in the same sentence.
Bezucha also makes poignant use of Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” watched by two characters on TV and used as a theme to connect all the characters as the film prepares to launch into its last act. Where most romantic comedies (which “The Family Stone” is, in a way) use a modern pop song for the we-broke-up-and-we-miss-each-other montage, here we get something from 1944.
There’s an unnecessary “one year later” epilogue that detracts somewhat from the swelling emotions of the film’s finale, tying things up far too neatly. But the performances are uniformly solid and intelligent — always funny, never silly — and while some may roll their eyes at the outrageous fantasyland the Stones live in, others will look at it with wistfulness. Either way, it’s a fun place.
B (1 hr., 42 min.; )