Hollywood is always making family comedies, but they are rarely about real families: relations who are as difficult as they are wonderful, people who both love and irritate the heck out of each other. Families like "The Family Stone."
A contemporary version of the traditional screwball romantic comedy, "The Family Stone" is a film that's at times as ragged and shaggy as its family unit. But as written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, its offbeat mixture of highly choreographed comic crises and the occasional bite of reality make for an unexpectedly enticing blend.
Bezucha, whose debut film was the independent feature "Big Eden," has been helped by a first-rate cast including Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Luke Wilson and Sarah Jessica Parker in one of her first post-"Sex and the City" parts. Not only is this an especially strong ensemble, but the actors seem pleased with their roles and relaxed with one another. They are, individually and as a group, characters who can't help but be human, with all the irritating, caring, opinionated and irascible impulses that implies. "Family Stone's" main thrust is toward entertainment, toward providing the kinds of reverses and changes of expectation character comedies traditionally deliver.
But the film also wants to remind us that family dynamics can be especially challenging over the holidays, when everyone is nominally trying to be jolly. And it is happy to point out how unpredictable falling in love is, how quixotic a process human attraction can become. It's no surprise that the family name of the genially bohemian New Englanders the film revolves around is Stone. But it's a very particular stone, an engagement ring that has been in the family for generations, that is critical to the plot's unfolding.
The Stones' oldest son, New York businessman Everett (Mulroney), is headed home to the family Christmas with his girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Parker), in tow. The parental Stones have not met the young lady, but based on what they've heard, father Kelly (Nelson) and especially mother Sybil (Keaton) are dreading Everett's inevitable request for that ring for Meredith's hand.
Sharing that dread are Everett's siblings, initially presented as a lively, iconoclastic bunch. These include Thad (Ty Giordano), both deaf and gay; married Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser); wacky Ben (Wilson), a Berkeley-based film editor; and vocal Amy (the always engaging McAdams), a feisty troublemaker who always says what's on her mind. Meredith Morton, by contrast, coiled tighter than the hair in her bun, more pulled together than her tailored suits, doesn't have a relaxed bone in her body. Given this cultural clash, so many family members react badly to Meredith that the film's original title was "Hating Her." If "Family Stone" were a more conventional work, its thrust would be how Meredith learns to loosen up and enjoy life. But it's a little trickier here.
For one thing, the film takes pains to show us that though Meredith is a difficult person, she is not a bad one. More than that, the Stones' callous treatment of her begins to present the family in a less than flattering light.
Adding to the complications, a stressed-out Meredith calls out to her younger sister to come share the holiday with her, and when the attractive, empathetic Julie (Claire Danes in long blond hair) shows up, she changes the entire dynamic several ways. "The Family Stone" is not without its problems. Keaton never seems completely comfortable in her role, and the film has the tendency, visible in its giving deaf, gay Ty an African American partner, to push some things too hard.
But Parker, who clearly relishes the opportunity to go through a variety of changes, and the key cast members make up the difference. "The Family Stone" has a gift for keeping its narrative balls moving along smartly. It's not a completely traditional romantic comedy, so we're never sure exactly how things will turn out -- which is as close to an unexpected holiday reward as we're likely to get.
'The Family Stone'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual content including dialogue, and drug references.
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter.
Released by Twentieth Century Fox. Writer-director Thomas Bezucha. Producer Michael London. Executive producer Jennifer Ogden. Director of photography Jonathan Brown. Editor Jeffrey Ford. Costumes Shay Cunliffe. Music Michael Giacchino. Production design Jane Ann Stewart. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
In general release.