After vigorously disapproving of her son's fussy fiancée, a mother says, "I know you're disappointed, but think how I feel." It's a nasty line, something out of an English drawing-room comedy, but from the mouth of Diane Keaton, the sentiment becomes strangely...loveable. All the more true when her character proves to be right, in Thomas Bezucha's pleasingly off-kilter domestic comedy The Family Stone.
At the film's outset, the Stones appear to be as warm as they come, happily greeting each other for their annual round of holiday cheer. There's mom Sybil, dad Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) and their growing brood: Everett (Dermot Mulroney), Amy (Rachel McAdams), Ben (Luke Wilson), the married Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), and Thad, who has a committed life partner in Patrick (Brian White). Bezucha and the cast obviously worked hard to achieve the not-so-easy rapport of people who know each other too well to ever completely let their guards down.
It becomes apparent that the seemingly warm Stones bond by huddling to snipe at anyone outside their circle, and soon they're publicly Stoning each other. This year's strife begins with the unwelcome infusion of Everett's fiancée Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), complicates with the airing of a devastating family secret, and complicates yet further with the arrival of Meredith's sister Julie (Claire Danes).
Parker's tightly wound routine at first plays more like a movie stereotype than a character, but Parker shines when she puts her nervous, restless energy into a series of indignities as horrible as—but more realistic than—anything Ben Stiller had to deal with in Meet the Parents. Mercilessly needled, then accused of racism (against African American Patrick), Meredith goes on the defensive, and over dinner, she makes homophobic comments that are ignorantly well-meaning but blithely hurtful. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Wilson's funny slacker insists to Meredith that she has "a freak flag—you just don't fly it."
It's to the credit of writer-director Bezucha uniformly to give his ensemble dislikeable qualities like Meredith's foot-in-mouth disease. Contrary to conventional wisdom, such flaws make the characters almost more easy to love, because they become more well-roundedly real. It's nice to see Keaton (great, as always) in her more tart mode rather than locked into her ditzily neurotic persona, and Bezucha brings out heretofore unsuspected shadings from Mulroney and Wilson. The rest of the ensemble prove equally up to their tasks (McAdams does a funny turn as a snarky cynic who arrives slinging an NPR tote over her shoulder), though Danes is marginalized in an underdeveloped, plot-driving role.
The Family Stone is flawed—at times predictable. But when Bezucha succumbs to cliché (a montage played out to Judy Garland's version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), at least he picks what works. One minute, Bezucha can have Nelson spout that Meredith "seems not to know or trust herself very well...which means our Everett may not know himself at all," and the next, he and Keaton can share a heartbreakingly tender love scene. Bezucha manages to be touching while not unduly sustaining each note. True, The Family Stone's most heart-tugging plot turn could be read cynically, but it's handled well, and few families won't see themselves in it. After all, isn't art meant to reflect life?