OK, Judge Ryan Keefer recognized Carrie Bradshaw, Coach Hayden Fox, and even Richie Tenenbaum in The Family Stone. So where are Larry Graham and Sly?
"You have the freak flag…you just don't fly it."
In the first feature film project for Sarah Jessica Parker since her award-winning turn in HBO's Sex and the City, she plays an uptight businesswoman who is meeting her boyfriend's family, which includes an idealist sister (Rachel McAdams, Red Eye), his deaf gay brother, and his spaced-out other brother (Luke Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums), among others. They are all under one roof, with an actively supportive mother and soft-spoken father (Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson, respectively). The visit coincides with the Christmas holiday season, so the larger question is does Parker's film with its large, notable ensemble cast provide a post-holiday treat or does it lay an egg?
Facts of the Case
Written and directed by Thomas Bezucha (Big Eden), Meredith (Parker) and her boyfriend Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney, The Wedding Date) go home to his family's house for Christmas. They meet up with all of the members of Everett's family, namely his sister Amy (McAdams), her brothers Ben (Wilson) and Thad (Tyrone Giordano), and Thad's boyfriend Patrick (Brian J. White, Mr. 3000). They all come home to meet Everett's mom Sybil (Keaton) and dad Kelly (Nelson), where Everett secretly plans to ask Meredith for her hand in marriage. At first, the family swarms over Meredith and intimidates her, and she feels like she can't handle the family without some friendly faces, so she decides to call her sister Julie (Claire Danes, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) for some moral support.
Despite Julie's presence, Meredith does have a meltdown of sorts, while Everett and his mother clash over her opinion of her perspective future daughter-in-law. In the meantime, Julie's appearance makes as much of an impact, if not more, on the Stone family than Meredith does, and someone in the family has taken a romantic interest in her. Who knows what will ensue in 103 laugh-choked minutes of comedy?
The "home for the holidays" theme in movies has become a steady sub-genre of films over the last decade or so. There's always a movie or two that is released anywhere from early November to mid-December each year. Some of the films have been pretty funny (The Ref), others have been, well, forgettable (Surviving Christmas).
It's hard to get a read of where The Family Stone stands in movies like this, but there are a few things that detract from liking or even accepting the film's charm. First off, the casting of the film is a little bit confused. As Meredith, Parker is rigid and so out of place in the role that it's almost as if she was a Republican in the first few minutes of the movie. Now, granted, that is the point of her performance in the film, but at some point, you're going to expect her to unbutton her blouse and let down her hair in some grand Bradshaw-ian manner that TV viewers have grown to expect over the last several years. And when she gets to that point, the focus of the story has already shifted to other characters/family members. As the stoned brother Ben, Wilson plays the offbeat sibling role well. The problem is that for all the out of place karma that Parker has playing Meredith, Wilson has played this role to death. And the same goes for Mulroney as the usual male romantic lead, which he has made a cottage industry portraying. It's the same thing over and over.
The scenes that have the most emotional resonance or humor in the film are those with Keaton and Nelson. To see Nelson as the soft-spoken patriarch is quite a thing, but Keaton is the driving force in the film, lifting up her children when they are down, even when she may be down herself. There's a surprise in the film that I won't discuss here, but it's handled very well, so well in fact that the scenes that are designed to give the audience laughs immediately following them just aren't convincing. It would be interesting to see Bezucha write a more dramatic-based script to see what he does with it.
For a film that didn't seem to do all that well at the box office, Fox has thrown a bunch of supplemental material on this disc. The highlight may be the audio commentary with Parker (who I don't think has done a commentary before) and Mulroney. Parker is quite giggly whenever she has something to add during the film with Mulroney, and the two recall working with some of the cast, but there's quite a bit of dead air here, with nothing much of note to contribute. They both are silent when they watch themselves on screen (which they admit), so I guess they're analyzing their performances or something. The larger commentary track with Bezucha, producer Michael London, editor Jeffrey Ford, and production designer Jane Ann Stewart covers a little more ground (though Stewart doesn't cover all that much) and is far more informative than the cast track. Most of the other supplemental material was done by the Fox Movie Channel people and covering things rather topically (in separate sessions) on the casting of the film and the players at the film's theatrical premiere. And yeah, there's even a question and answer session at one screening, where Wilson is as much of a funny guy off screen as he is on. The usual behind the scenes/electronic press kit on the film follows, and there's even a gag reel full of Parker flubs that's surprisingly not all that funny. There's also about five minutes of deleted and extended scenes that are forgettable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, Keaton is the family's matriarch, and the few scenes that she is in are good (she literally does make the other actors who share scenes with her better), but the problem is that she's not the centerpiece of the film, and to look at things from that point of view and give her a little more screen time would have made things a little more personally enjoyable.
While it's not a complete loss, The Family Stone simply isn't as funny as one would expect it to be, because we've either a) seen some of these actors in the same roles before, or b) those who tackle new acting projects just aren't convincing. The dramatic scenes (or the scenes that help to contrast the comedic moments) are pretty affecting, but it leaves an overall mixed bag for a cinematic result.
Guilty verdicts go to Parker, Wilson, and Mulroney for the crime of essentially recycling performances or just plain doing something that's not all that good. A not guilty verdict is issued for Keaton as a result of her work in the film. A suspended sentence for Bezucha, as it will be interesting to see what he does next.
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• Commentary with Writer/Director Thomas Bezucha, Producer Michael London, Editor Jeffrey Ford, and Production Designer Jane Anne Stewart
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