Granted, it’s difficult to make anything new out of the Christmas-family-gathering movie. The conventions are so entrenched, the characters so inflexible, and the outcomes so predictable that each incarnation only reminds you how much you disliked the one that came before. But still.
This year’s version is Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone, in which the liberal-leaning, self-congratulating Stones are addled when good boy Everett (Dermot Mulroney) brings home a bad fiancée. Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) doesn’t mean to be bad. In fact, she tries very hard to be liked,. She’s not scheming or mean-spirited or even particularly anti-liberal. She’s just tense, fretful, and ignorant. And that makes her a target for the free-thinking Stones, whose first representatives on screen are son Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and his partner Patrick (Brian J. White). Thad happens to be deaf and Patrick happens to be black, and both happen to be lovingly, securely, radiantly gay.
Inside the Stone home, the atmosphere is cozy too. Sybil (Diane Keaton) and Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) are thrilled to see the kids as they tumble in, from Thad and Patrick to pregnant Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) and her charmingly brainy daughter Elizabeth (Savannah Stehlin) to laidback, pot-smoking documentary filmmaker Ben (Luke Wilson) to the wittily “mean one,” Amy (Rachel McAdams), who arrives with a laundry basket full of dirty clothes and her NPR bag on her shoulder. This year, Amy has special reason to be edgy, as she’s already met Meredith once, for a fancy restaurant dinner in NYC. Not one to keep her opinions to herself, Amy pronounces, “I hate her.” Meredith is not good enough: she has a throat-clearing tic, she’s “phony and completely uptight,” and besides, she’s too into her Jimmy Choos.
This last is illustrated with Meredith’s entrance: emerging from Everett’s car where she’s been clearing her throat and fidgeting and answering her cell phone during the drive from town, her spiky heel immediately drops into the muddy gravel of the ‘burban driveway. The assembled Stones watch from the window, shuffling and judging, even as Everett warns Meredith that she’s being watched. Gee, it’s almost as if Everett, successful executive and perfect prodigal son, is setting up his girl for a fall. Now the only question is, what bit of family history is driving him?
The answer emerges soon and repeatedly. Before her judges, every word Meredith speaks seems to indict her. She refuses to sleep in Everett’s old bedroom with him (thus inspiring Sybil to move the youngest, Amy, to the couch so the guest can have her little-girly-décor-ed attic room) and assures her hosts that it’s okay about her damaged shoes, because “I have another pair for that outfit.” She feels out of place because she can’t sign like everyone else, and tends to talk loudly at Thad. The Stones roll their eyes and bond over her awkwardness as she tells the story of meeting Everett in a Hong Kong hotel while extolling her own skills in managing IPOs and “the Asian market.”
Though she sees the Stones’ increasing antipathy (and how could she not), Meredith presses on, hoping to be please Everett and win over the clan. Ba-dump: she plays charades terribly (and says quite the wrong thing at dinner. Even with her sister Julie (Claire Danes, looking all serene and poignant in counterpoint to Meredith) now arrived as emotional support, Meredith just can’t help herself. Learning that Thad and Patrick are adopting, she wonders aloud whether they might “influence” the child, and whether any parent would want to his child to be “normal” rather than “challenged in that way” (“You don’t really hope for gay children, do you?”). Sybil explodes, Meredith tries to escape and — surprise! — crashes her car into a tree. Julie apologizes (“I know how she can seem”, but the damage is apparently done. Mom insists to Thad that he is “more normal than all the assholes at this table,” he smiles sweetly, and the tribal drumbeat against Meredith continues.
You know that Sybil’s outburst has more to do with her terminal illness than with Meredith, but the outsider can’t guess that. And so she’s rescued by the gallant brother, Ben, who takes her to a local dive where she can drink beers, listen to the jukebox, and literally let her hair down. Ben watches her admiringly, as she dances to oldies and tries to play sexy with the shy homeboy paramedic, Brad (Paul Schneider), the young man who, she’s been told, “popped Amy’s cherry.” “I am not a bad person,” she insists to Ben. “You’re a total mess,” he agrees. More hopefully, he sees in her the seeds of anarchy. “You have the freak flag, you just don’t fly it.”
Flying that flag will prove Meredith’s salvation (if that’s how you choose to read her eventual, next-year’s holiday epilogue). “I’m just as good as any of you,” she protests during a sloppy, Christmas day showdown in the kitchen. “Better, probably,” sighs Sybil. The point isn’t really measuring up, though this is, of course, the presumption of Christmas-family-gathering movies. While it provides pleasurable moments (Susannah watching Judy Garland sing in Meet Me in St. Louis on tv, Brad finding the perfect gift for Amy), The Family Stone is, finally, less brave than Meredith, resorting at last to cookie-cutter resolutions like slapsticky fights and everyone’s-happy couplings.