The Family Stone (2005)

Marisa Carroll

In trying to balance the competing forces of farce and pathos, the film is at times funny and moving, though there are so many characters and subplots that some get lost in the shuffle.

The Family Stone

Director: Thomas Bezucha
Cast: Ty Giordano, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Elizabeth Reaser, Luke Wilson
Studio: 20th Century Fox
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2006-05-02
Amazon affiliate

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.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.