Meeting the in-laws for the first time is always awkward, even more so if, like Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker, nicely playing against type), you’re a neurotic career woman while your boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney, suave) comes from a family of bon vivant artists and academics. While this clash of personalities is initially comedic, it soon becomes clear that the film is after something much less cheerful, even if it is a Christmas movie.
The Stone clan’s matriarch, Sybil (the always excellent Diane Keaton), may seem to always have a smirk and a cutting remark handy but when she’s by herself, she suddenly becomes pensive and melancholy… I’m not gonna tell you what’s the painful thing she’s hiding; anyway you can probably figure it out yourself. In any case, this only becomes fully relevant late in the film. Early on, it’s all about Meredith -and the audience- meeting the extended cast.
Generally standing by Sybil’s side is big daddy Kelly Stone (Craig T. Nelson, surprisingly commanding), a warm and understanding man who also knows how to firmly put his foot (or hand) down when “it’s enough”. His wife and him have managed to keep the circus that is their household afloat, raising five complex and fascinating kids: Everett, Ben (Luke Wilson, doing that easygoing dude thing he and brother Owen have perfected), pregnant Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser, not making much of an impression), deaf and gay Thad (Ty Giordano, who’s deaf in real life as well and interestingly uses sign language to communicate with the other actors/characters), and Amy (Rachel McAdams, hilariously doing a grungy spin on the queen bitch she played in Mean Girls).
What “The Family Stone” reminded me the most is of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, with secrets and prejudices boiling under jovial appearances. I’m pretty sure this is intended too, especially when you hear the very sentimental score and see the shots of the bucolic family house covered in snow – you practically expect a deer to show up by the picture window, “All That Heaven Allows”-style. And while I think of it, doesn’t Dermot Mulroney look a little bit like Rock Hudson?
Anyway, “The Family Stone” has many very emotional scenes, and what looks like a simple dynamic eventually becomes more complicated. Meredith calls in her sister Julie (Claire Danes, lovely) for emotional support, unaware of the effect she’ll have on…. well, you’ll see. Also entering the picture is Brad Stevenson (Paul Schneider, casually stealing scenes like in Elizabethtown), who “popped Amy’s cherry” years ago and still pines for her. You can imagine how chaotic the Stone’s Christmas will become, causing both laughs and tears. The tone shifts are sometimes too abrupt, and writer-director Thomas Bezucha doesn’t quite manage to satisfyingly develop all the characters and their various inter-crossing relationships. Thankfully, he’s got a great ensemble cast that helps to smoothen things out somewhat so that we’re willing to stick it out. The resolution and subsequent coda seemed a bit too neat to me but hey, this IS a Christmas movie!