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‘The Family Stone,’ ‘Love Actually,’ and the virtues of sad holiday movies

It’s supposed to be the happiest time of the year, a moment when all of the imperfections in our lives disappear in a wave of goodwill, gift-giving and good intentions for the new year.

But the high expectations we place on the season also make it the perfect time to dust off “The Family Stone,” Thomas Bezucha’s 2005 romantic drama about what happens when Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings home his old-fashioned girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to meet his self-righteously liberal family, including his mother Sybil (Diane Keaton), who has serious breast cancer, his sister Amy (Rachel McAdams), and his stoner brother Ben (Luke Wilson).

“The Family Stone” isn’t a perfect movie, or even a consistently strong one. It’s overloaded with characters, and the Stone family could probably stand to shrink by two siblings, losing the deaf Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and his husband Patrick (Brian White) an interracial couple who, as Chris Orr put it in his 2005 review of the movie, are “all but smothered by (their) political identifiers,” and Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), whose sole role in the movie to prove that being a jerk is not a genetic condition. The film also takes a hard turn into screwball comedy precisely when it ought to lean into the painful emotions the characters are finally starting to express to each other.

But it does capture the kind of difficult truth that also shows up in the best “Love Actually” storylines, too: the holidays are a time when the gap between who we really are and who we would like to be often comes into especially sharp relief.

Sybil likes to think of herself as open-minded and generous. But the speed with which she judges Meredith, and the way she tells Everett “I know you’re disappointed. But think how I feel,” when she refuses him her mother’s wedding ring, suggests that she is just as narrow and parochial as the woman she doesn’t want to marry her son. Amy has convinced herself that her harshness is an expression of principals, but when confronted with Meredith’s generous Christmas gift, she must confront her own petulance, cruelty and childishness. Meredith learns that in pursuing perfection, she has rendered herself supremely unlikable and unhappily rigid. And Everett must reconcile himself to the fact that his mother is, as she tells him, “sick … And you can’t fix it. Not even by getting married.”

That same sense of disappointment and difficult confrontation with reality often shows up in Richard Curtis’ holiday ensemble, which is regularly mistaken for a romantic comedy.

Sarah (Laura Linney) reconciles herself to the fact that she is not able to distance herself from her mentally ill brother, even to pursue a love that could be supportive and true. Harry’s (Alan Rickman) stupid flirtation with his receptionist Mia (Heike Makatsch) may not have led anywhere, but it reveals an undercurrent of disregard for his wife Karen’s (Emma Thompson) feelings. “You’ve also made a fool out of me, and you’ve made the life I lead foolish, too!” she tells him. And Mark (Andrew Lincoln) finally acknowledges that his obsession with Juliet (Keira Knightley) is destructive both to her happiness in her new marriage with Mark’s best friend Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and to Mark’s own prospects for love and intimacy.

These are difficult, deeply personal confrontations, the sorts of hard-to-face ideas we disguise with lights and tinsel and then push aside with the optimism of New Year’s resolutions. This is one of the reasons that “The Family Stone” and “Love Actually” often smother their best moments in silliness and sentiment – the former stages a silly kitchen disaster, while the later wastes time on a kitschy kids’ story and a pornographic fantasy about American women that is a misfit with Curtis’ other storylines.

The fact that these movies managed to touch on such truths at all, even if they don’t have the courage to follow their convictions all the way to the closing credits, is more than a little refreshing. The pressure to be nothing but happy and joyful at Christmas can be exhausting. In their own small ways, “The Family Stone” and “Love Actually” argue that there’s greater transcendence and beauty to be found in acknowledging your own brokenness.

They might not live up to the shiny, commercial expectations we’ve set for Christmas. But their sense of sadness and redemption is absolutely true to a deeper and more meaningful sense of the season.

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