Hate to play Scrooge, but there's terminal illness in "The Family Stone."
It's worth noting since the previews present it as an eggnoggy romp through visions of sugar plums.
With that out of the way, "The Family Stone" is a romp -- a bad romp -- that treats the character's illness like a sideshow until the very end, when it attempts to wring some feeling from a story built from hijinks and crush-swapping.
Straight-laced Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings home straight-laced Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to meet his family for Christmas. Everett's family is not straight-laced. During the holidays, the Stones keep busy by distributing noogies or slipping on spilled strada.
Bohemian brother Ben (Luke Wilson) and cardigan-wearing dad eat pot brownies. Sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) lives in sweat pants and has a forked tongue. Mom (Diane Keaton) is the type of person who has her desk in the kitchen, though we're never sure why she needs a desk, or what it means that she has it in the kitchen. Brother Thad (Ty Giordano) is deaf and gay, and that's about all the movie considers him to be.
The Stone family hates Meredith, because she's unwilling to have their kind of fun (brownies, noogies, strada). She clashes with the family's "liberal" sensibilities. She offends everyone during a ridiculous dinner scene and, mortified, flees the house to summon her (bohemian) sister Julie (Claire Danes) for . . . what? Moral support? To run interference? Or to distract her straight-laced boyfriend while she cuddles up to his bohemian brother so we'll have some kind of semi-realistic conflict?
Opposites attract, but we neither feel that attraction nor sense that this is what the movie's about. Mulroney, a fine actor who chooses great projects ("Lovely & Amazing," "Undertow"), stands idly as his talents are swamped by a character deprived of disposition. There is no logic to why he loves Meredith, or why Meredith is so incapable of pretending to get along with the family, or why Julie is suddenly "the one."
We're dealing with holiday cookie cutouts here -- jingles, if you will -- not fully formed bipeds. And then the movie seems to be about Mom, since it's about nothing else.
Keaton deserves much better. Here, she is a prop, wedged atop the tree like a sacrificial angel by the film's end. Yes, Mom's the one with the terminal illness.
If knowing this spoils the movie for you, then by all means see "The Family Stone" and boil with them in their own pudding. If the holidays are supposed to be as cloying and contrived as this, I have one word: humbug.
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1.5 stars (out of 4)
THE FAMILY STONE
STARRING: Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson, Dermot Mulroney, Diane Keaton
DIRECTOR: Thomas Bezucha
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for sexual content and roughousing.
THE LOWDOWN: Tragicomic tale of a dysfunctional family gathering for Christmas.