The Family Stone - Skip "Stone" in the Christmas Movie Pond

From "The Chronicles of Narnia," to "King Kong," to "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the sampling of available movie-going experiences over the holiday season is packed with big-budget, big-named, high-concept films meant to overload the senses and indulge audiences in a complete experience.  The period stretching from Thanksgiving weekend through New Year's, though, is still a prime time for more low-key, Christmas-themed films to rear their head as well, offering family-oriented alternatives.

When looking for your holiday fare in the Christmas cinematic pond, however, it may be worth it to skip "The Family Stone."  Despite starring such big name stars as Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, and Academy-Award winner Diane Keaton, performances and names alone are not enough to save this film from sinking just as quickly as if it were tied up in a burlap sack with its namesake rock pulling it all the way down to where it belongs' at the bottom of the ocean.  Funny in some parts, but mostly not, "The Family Stone" can also "boast" being generally slow throughout its execution.

(Left to right) Mulroney, Wilson, and McAdams wait for direction

"The Family Stone" begins with Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney), love-struck "suit," looking to bring his long-time girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his family for Christmas.  Unfortunately, it's not as simple as most "meet-the-family" gatherings.  The crazy, quirky, and even a bit Bohemian-sense of the Stone family is a stark contrast to the fast-paced New York lifestyle Everett leads, and especially in comparison to his overly anxious and controlling girlfriend.  In addition, not only is Everett's objective to get his family acquainted, but he also plans to ask Meredith's hand in marriage with his grandmother's wedding ring' a family heirloom promised him by his intelligent and strong-willed mother, Sybil (Diane Keaton), who feels that Meredith is unworthy to accept such a gift.

Meredith finds herself entirely out-of-place for Christmas, particularly since Everett's sister, Amy (Rachel McAdams), seems to have the greatest unknown vendetta of the whole family against Meredith, and constantly calls attention to every out-of-place mannerism and habit (especially a throat clearing reminiscent of "clam digging").  Finding that only Everett's pot-head brother Ben (Luke Wilson) seems even remotely accepting, Meredith enlists the help of her sister, Julie (Claire Danes), to lessen the drastic differences between herself and the Stones.  Against expectations, the Stones' including Everett' seem to embrace Julie, and Meredith is left to find herself in this holiday mess of a movie.

Now because this is a Christmas film' I'm going to be nice and mention some of the good things about it first that make it an at least decent viewing choice when it comes to the bucks you spend at the box office. It is the holidays, after all'

Firstly, the performances, despite this nearly crippling script, remain on par and as expected from such a talented cast.  While the film is rank with clunky, awkward dialogue, the actors' particularly Keaton, Parker, and Wilson' do the best they can with what they've been given.  Wilson, especially, moves with ease from his classic and suave persona (think "Legally Blonde") into a role more akin to those generally taken by his brother, Owen.  While not overtly slapstick, there is a subtle, and even romantic goofiness to him that makes Wilson stand out just enough, without giving the gaudy performance you'd expect from someone who's character is defined as a regular marijuana user.

Striking McAdams (left) and Keaton discover a mess

Rachel McAdams, a bonafide star by all means, is also a joy to watch in her against-type, cunning and conniving role.  Wilson, along with Keaton, Parker, and Craig T. Nelson (who plays Kelly, the family's patriarch), also pull off convincing emotional depth' an essential element to making this film bearable.  Really' it's the ensemble effort here that makes this film.

The final two compliments that can be paid to "The Family Stone" is a nicely tied ending that seems to bring the family's story full circle, as well as a few tear-jerker moments that sincerely make this film the Christmas family movie it's marketed as being.  If only there were more nice things to say'

Unfortunately, while this movie does have some saving grace, it is, on the whole, a most mediocre piece of cinema.  The script is horribly formulaic, predictable, and even contrived into mimicking the delightful "While You Were Sleeping"' except with much less character and plot development, and definitely less funny.  Situations simply "happen" with little preemptive incidents or causal motivation, and devices are thrown in on a whim with no real meaning or purpose for driving the plot forward.

                                   

Mulroney is torn between two loves--Danes (left) and Parker (right)

For example, no contribution is given to the film by having one of the Stone children being both deaf and gay, forcing the family to constantly use sign language to keep him "in" on conversations.  If it had contributed at all to the endearing nature of the story, I may have understood.  In the end, however, the signing turned out to be merely distracting, and an overly obvious, if not offensive device to make the Meredith character seem more insensitive to the family.

Most annoying, however, was the device of Meredith's sister, Julie.  This completely unneeded character is unrealistically thrown into the film to make Meredith feel more comfortable, and ultimately contribute to the twists and turns that is supposed to make "The Family Stone" into a romantic comedy.   Her character feels "thrown in" though, and not nearly as much effort is poured into her as should be to make her valuable.  While certainly beautiful to look at' I'd rather have Claire Danes in a movie where she really seems to matter, versus having her in a movie simply as a tool and eye candy.

(Left to right) McAdams, Keaton, and Parker find something to laugh about

Finally, the film is simply not as funny as a self-purported comedy should be.  While littered with it's moments, particularly the head at the climax of the film, this movie is merely a series of amusing episodes that writer/director Thomas Bezucha must have seen in his head, but with no clear conception of how to get from point A to point B in between.  Consequently, the film's mundane in-betweeners slow the pace of the film to nearly the speed of frozen molasses, making the audience wonder when a point will finally be made.

Make no mistake' despite my harsh criticisms of "The Family Stone," which takes up the bulk of this review, this film' while disappointing and certainly fails to meet expectations' is at least not a complete waste of money for a matinee.  If it came down to seeing this film over going home and renting a movie' sure, it's a nice family outing. If you're looking for a knee-slapper though, worthy of a $15 dollar night show' "The Family Stone" certainly isn't it.

                             

 

"The Family Stone' appears in theaters December 16, 2005.  Check out the official website at http://www.thefamilystonemovie.com/

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