Among the Family Stone DVD’s special features is a recipe for the Morton Family Strata, a dish prepared by Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in the film. To read the recipe to its completion, the viewer must scroll through screen after screen of ingredients and preparation instructions. Like the alternately heartfelt and hammy movie in which it’s set, the strata may contain a few too many ingredients for the audience’s patience — and its own good.
The Family Stone, a Christmastime comedy-drama with an all-star cast, is similar in spirit and design to recent holiday-themed fare like Home for the Holidays and Stepmom. Meredith Morton (Parker), an uptight Manhattanite, is introduced to the liberal parents (the wonderful Keaton and Nelson) of her boyfriend, Everett (Mulroney). Of Everett’s quirky siblings, snotty NPR fan Amy (McAdams) and deaf and gay Thad (Giordano) take an instant dislike to her; dreamy, laid-back Ben (Wilson) is more forgiving (and also attracted to her); Susannah (Reaser), the mature one, is merely quietly judgmental. On the Stones’ home turf — one of those overstuffed New England Colonials that always seem to invite death in these kinds of movies — Meredith is an easy target, and the Stones nastily use it to their advantage. Sadly the family has a far more dangerous threat than Meredith to contend with, which is gradually revealed as the story unfolds.
The setup requires writer/director Bezucha to balance the competing forces of farce and pathos, and it’s a difficult task that he’s not quite up to yet. Though The Family Stone is at times funny and moving, there are so many characters and subplots that some get lost in the shuffle. In the breathless, giggly commentary track by Parker and Mulroney (in which they tease and flirt with each other for 102 minutes and generate more chemistry as themselves than as Meredith and Everett), Parker claims that one of the film’s themes involves the characters finding their true selves. Unfortunately Meredith and most of the Stones register as one-dimensional character types, not as complex people — though the actors and filmmakers try their best in their commentary tracks to convince us otherwise.
Parker discusses the symbolism behind her character’s clothes and changing hairdos (e.g., a severe bun and a suit = hiding behind one’s false self; hair down and sweatpants = relaxing into one’s true self), a point picked up in the commentary by Bezucha, producer Michael London, and production designer Jane Ann Stewart. From this track, we learn how much forethought and care went into the production design and costuming, so it’s truly a shame these components don’t convey the depth and history the filmmakers intended. Costume and set design can effectively telegraph a great deal of information about characters, but these elements are asked to do too much work here and can’t compensate for undeveloped roles and too little screen time. (Bezucha worked for Ralph Lauren and Coach before moving into film, so perhaps it’s not surprising that The Family Stone heavily relies on a “clothes make the man” shorthand.)
The Casting Session and World Premiere features are packaged to fill in the film’s gaps, reinforce its themes, and testify to its “realness” (this word is invoked often); the viewer is told several times that the cast grew close as the filming progressed, eventually evolving into a family, and that Diane Keaton was the lynch pin that held the project together, much like her character does the Stone clan in the film. Parker, Mulroney, Wilson, McAdams, and Giordano do seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company during a Q&A session at the Screen Actors Guild Theater, and their offscreen affection is capitalized upon here in order to authenticate the relationships that develop onscreen.
McAdams and Wilson channel their natural appeal into their underwritten roles, but Parker’s performance is mannered and over-the-top. In the past, she has shown herself to be a witty, wry performer with crack comic timing, but in the last few years (see seasons five and six of Sex and the City), she has played comedy so broadly that her gestures and delivery have bordered on pantomime. I’m not sure if she doesn’t trust her abilities, her material, or her audience, but she has the same problem here — admittedly she isn’t given much to work with besides impeccable suits, a nervous tic, and a cliché drunk scene. Keaton, on the other hand, is so good she enriches potentially maudlin material with true feeling, and she effortlessly brings out the best in the other actors, most notably Mulroney, whose emotional range typically falls between blankly likable and likably blank. In a scene late in the film, Keaton elicits such a passionate, devastated response from Mulroney, it’s a genuine surprise and quite moving.
Bezucha deserves credit for writing and staging such a heart-rending scene, but like his Meredith character, he lets his desire to be liked to sabotage his best intentions. Instead of allowing his audience time to fully grasp the love and sadness motivating the conversation between mother and son, he quickly careens to a screwball-comedy set-up and wastes an opportunity for achieving profound emotional catharsis.
Despite the film’s problems, Bezucha does demonstrate a facility with actors, a sharp eye for detail, and an earnest humanism. In the film’s final scene, McAdams’s sympathetic performance prompts the audience to imagine (or remember) the first important holiday after a life-changing loss, and the plain, compassionate poignancy of this moment is likely to resonate with many viewers. If Bezucha holds on to the simplicity he shows here, his next effort will be one to watch.