DVD Release Date:  May 2, 2006
Theatrical Release Date:  December 16, 2005
Rating:  PG-13 (some sexual content including dialogue, and drug references)
Genre:  Comedy/Drama/Romance
Run Time:  102 min.
Director:  Thomas Bezucha
Actors:  Diane Keaton, Sarah Jessica Parker, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, Claire Danes, Craig T. Nelson, Rachel McAdams

Sarah Jessica Parker is back.  Fresh from her HBO run in “Sex in the City,” she’s on the big screen now.  And this time, although her character certainly differs from the quirky Carrie Bradshaw, one might be tempted to call this film “Sex in the Suburbs.”

Meredith Morton (Parker) just wants to make a good impression.  So when she goes to the ’burbs with her boyfriend, Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney, “Must Love Dogs”) to meet and spend the holidays with his family, she’s naturally a little nervous.  But what neither she nor Everett realize is how very judgmental the Stones can be – and this, despite their oh-so-progressive attitudes toward casual sex, homosexuality and drug use.  As a result, Meredith walks into the proverbial hornet’s nest.

The Stones are not entirely to blame.  Meredith is about as warm as the snow that blankets the neighborhood this Christmas season, and doesn’t seem to even want to loosen up.  She refuses to sleep with Everett in his room, which forces his poisoned-tongue sister, Amy (Rachel McAdams“The Notebook”) out of her room and onto the couch.  Everett’s mother, Sybil (Diane Keaton, “Something’s Gotta Give”) ridicules this thinking, which has nothing to do with concerns over premarital sex (Meredith and Everett are clearly doing that).  It’s just “manners,” according to Meredith, who is so stiff that the family soon takes to calling her “The Bedford -----” (rhymes with “witch”).  For some strange reason, however, Meredith’s proper upbringing doesn’t prevent her from making social faux pas after faux pas.

What starts off as a drama soon transforms into romantic comedy when Meredith invites her sister Julie (Claire Danes, “Shopgirl”) to join her.  After a disastrous dinner, she disappears and gets drunk, forcing Julie and Everett to go searching for her – which they don’t seem to mind one bit.  Meanwhile, Meredith is getting stoned with Everett’s brother, Ben (Luke Wilson, “Alex and Emma”), who has a crush on her and apparently no qualms about moving in on his brother’s soon-to-be fiancé.

Is “The Family Stone” a drama?  A comedy?  Or a romantic comedy?  Hard to tell, because there are elements of all these genres, – which can work, if mixed well.  Unfortunately, however, they do not mesh well together here.  The first third of the movie is serious, while during the middle, characters fall in love instantaneously, fake-fight and fall all over the kitchen floor.  By the end, we’re back to tear-jerking drama.  It’s too bad, really, because it started off with promise. 

The main problem is lack of depth.  I really wanted to know why Meredith was so cold and uptight, and I wanted her to deal with her issues, but this never happened.  As a result, her character lacks credibility.  It’s a problem with all the characters in the film, who are not so much stereotypical as they are superficial.  This causes problems with the plot, as well.  We don’t get any background on anyone.  Meredith and Julie don’t call home to wish their parents “Merry Christmas” – er, “Happy Holidays,” since this film is very PC.  We never hear about grandparents, meet any neighbors or friends, and except for Julie, nobody talks about their jobs.

So many other questions remain unanswered, too.  Why are Meredith and Everett together, when they have no tenderness?  Why does Everett fall for Julie so quickly, after being dead-sure that he wanted to marry Meredith the day before?  Why does Ben fall for Meredith, when they have absolutely nothing in common?  Why do the kids adore Sybil so much, when she’s over-controlling and tries way too hard to be cool?  And why, in heaven’s name, is their father (Craig T. Nelson, “The District”) acting like he’s the one who’s stoned, being completely passive throughout these crises?

The set-up was good.  Yes, it’s the usual dysfunctional family mishmash during the holidays.  But the acting is stellar all around and, at times, the dialogue is sharp (I especially liked the comment, “You have a freak flag.  You just don’t fly it,” from Ben).  If only director/screenwriter Thomas Bezucha had dared to delve a little deeper, we might have appreciated everything a lot more.  A former fashion executive with Polo/Ralph Lauren, Bezuchas’s only prior film credit is “Big Eden,” which deals with homosexual love.  Here, unfortunately, his message seems to be in the way.

The Stones are presented as the ideal family – one where the parents are wholly accepting of anything their children do.  In addition to a cringe-worthy casual comment about the way her daughter lost her virginity, Sybil also jokes about how she wishes all three of her sons were gay.  Everett’s brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and his black lover, Patrick (Brian J. White) are presented as one of the happiest couples in the house, in fact.  Thad is also deaf, which presents yet another message about tolerance and diversity.  Oh, and he and Patrick are trying to adopt. 

As if that’s not enough, we’re also subjected to a lecture about the origins of homosexuality being genetic (vs. environmental), after a tongue-tied Meredith expresses dismay that Sybil would hope for gay sons.  Not because being gay is wrong, of course (“I love the gays!” she later shouts), but because it’s so difficult to be gay when there is so much prejudice.  Instead of being “tolerant” of Meredith’s questions, however, the family becomes furious – and Meredith looks like a bigot.

Just like Meredith’s miraculous transformation, which comes after a night of drunkenness, drug-using and infidelity, I’m just not sure what the lesson is here – except for the one about tolerance.  Although this message doesn’t dominate “The Family Stone,” it’s clearly an important point – certainly more than anything we might extract from the love quadrangle between Meredith, Everett, Julie and Ben, which has little to offer in the way of wisdom.  Quite the opposite, actually.

Unfortunately, when a film aims to preach rather than recount a story (this goes for Christian films as well), integrity often suffers.  Sadly, “The Family Stone” is no exception.  I enjoyed the sets, and I enjoyed the acting all around.  But overall, it was a disappointment.

AUDIENCE:  Adults only

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:   Several scenes with wine; two characters get very drunk in a bar; one character dances drunkenly, buys a round of drinks for all the bar patrons and asks where they can “score some pot;”  mother scolds son, saying, “No pot in my house!” but in another scene, son smokes marijuana while talking with his father, who does not object (another character later refers to them getting “stoned together”).
  • Language/Profanity:  A dozen or so of both curses and profanities, including one strong ASL “signed” profanity.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Various sexual situations, including couples in bed together (no nudity), frank discussion about sleeping together and “screwing,” and a vulgar euphemism for a young woman losing her virginity, spoken approvingly by the mother and later repeated by another character.
  • Violence:  Two male characters get into a mild fight; others have an accidental fall; some fighting.