Friday, May 4, 2012

Kissing The Stone Of Mediocrity: The Family Stone

The Good: Decent acting, Fair plot
The Bad: Unlikable or inconsistent characters, Builds too much on unpleasantness before getting good
The Basics: When the Stone Family reunites, it is an annoying girlfriend to one of the sons that dominates the story and ruins the experience for family and viewer alike.

I cannot remember the last time a movie had an emotional resonance with me, where it succeeded in bringing a tear to my eye at moments, that I did not then recommend. Ultimately, and I suppose to skip to the end, The Family Stone is not a movie I'm willing to recommend because by the time it gets to the deeply emotional stuff, it has mortgaged its enjoyability. That is to say, by the time the story tells us to care about the characters, we already do not. And what is most likely to bring a tear to one's eyes is obvious. Writer/director Thomas Bezucha goes for the obvious tear-jerker moments, so the viewer is more likely to feel manipulated at the conclusion to the movie than satisfied.

The Stone family is getting together for Christmas. This year, Everett is bringing his new girlfriend, Meredith Morton, home with him. She is uptight, somewhat obnoxious and pretty glued to her cellphone. She has trouble unwinding, insists on sleeping apart from Everett and feels pressure to fit in with his family.

The family, diverse to the point of cliche, is setup to not like her, though patriarch Kelly insists they give her a fair chance. Sybil, the matriarch, is feeling anxiety over her suspicion that Everett is going to ask her for a promised ring to propose to Meredith. Everett is, in fact, prepared to propose to Meredith and finds himself in conflict with his family over his choice of spouse. Younger sister Amy is feeling persecuted and put out by Meredith, Ben is giving everyone a chance, deaf son Thad and his Black gay partner Patrick are planning to adopt and see this as a chance to be with their family to float the idea and Susannah - with her daughter - is waiting for her absent husband to show up for the holiday.

The problem here is twofold. The first problem is Meredith. While actress Sarah Jessica Parker does not get top billing for The Family Stone, Meredith is the central character during the first half of the movie. And she's unlikable. We're not supposed to like her. Bezucha sees to that. From the first moment she appears on screen talking incessantly into her cell phone, Meredith is portrayed as an uptight pain in the butt. In her first scene with Everett, his action is to simply take away her cell phone and close it, undermining any insinuation of chemistry between the pair. Meredith is unlikable and she is supposed to be. But she is so unlikable and so much time at the beginning of the movie is spent on her that the Stone family - and their assorted stories - simply act as an accessory to her story. And, frankly, we just spend the first part of the movie hoping something unlikely will happen like an alien will abduct her or a car will just crash into the house and take her out. No such luck.

The other problem is the Stone family. This is a collection of direct, progressive people who are generally likable. They are immediately accepting of their family members. All of the members of the family sign for Thad, no one has a problem with his homosexuality or his partner's presence in their family. Thus, after such an establishment, it reads as significantly off that only Ben would give Meredith a chance. Meredith enters the house and is immediately stiff. The family, which seems to be caring and flexible, goes out of their way to make her uncomfortable, flaunting her problems as opposed to helping her through them.

So, the viewer stops caring about Meredith, we side with Sybil and her view that Meredith is not right for Everett. Sybil's issues become a side note and used to jerk the audience around. But more than that, the same lack of attention to detail or caring that marks the Stone family's problem above comes into the writing. There is a line of dialogue that Meredith delivers to Everett early on after arriving at the house. She basically says she doesn't want Everett to feel like he jumped into something and committed too soon and then got stuck. Because he hasn't proposed or anything remotely like that, there's a subtext that perhaps she is pregnant. That subtext - and more importantly, the emotional insecurities which created it - are almost instantly disappeared.

And the problem here is not in the acting or even in the characters. This is not a case of quality actors being placed in roles that don't work. This is an instance of quality actors playing interesting, defined enough, characters who simply don't act like how they are defined after a while. So, for example, Amy gives up her room to accommodate Meredith. She is the rebellious youngest member of the family and it seems odd that she is so thrown by being asked to make so small a sacrifice.

Amy is played by Rachel McAdams and her performance is delightful and Diane Keaton gives another performance worthy of her caliber. Luke Wilson, somewhat disappointingly, plays the same essential character we've seen him as before, which he plays well. Wilson is Ben, an educated and extremely casual guy who more or less surfs through the movie simply dealing with what comes up. In a similar way, Dermot Mulroney fails to wow us as Everett. The actor who surprised me most in The Family Stone was Craig T. Nelson. Nelson plays Kelley and it's a mature, quiet role that requires strength, subtlety and intelligence and Nelson nails the role. He might not have a lot of lines in the movie, but he owns the ones he has and in the final scenes of the film he connotes a great deal with his eyes and expressions.

But it is Sarah Jessica Parker who dominates much of the beginning of the movie as Meredith and her performance creates a character that is so unrelentingly unlikable as to be difficult to watch. Parker walks around the screen and one can see she is visibly clenched, creating a tone that is unsettling, uncomfortable and unenjoyable.

Those are three words that are the death knell to any romantic, family comedy or most dramadies. A hard drama, like Magnolia manages to be unsettling and at times uncomfortable, without being unenjoyable. The Family Stone fails on that front. Ultimately, as I said before, by the time The Family Stone becomes noteworthy, the viewer already has stopped caring about the family and their predicaments and foibles.

For other works with Elizabeth Reaser, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Breaking Dawn, Part I
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
New Moon
Twilight trading cards P-8 Elizabeth Reaser costume card


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my movie reviews!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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