Sunday, December 20, 2009

'The Family Stone': Overlooked Christmas Gem

By Lars Trodson

There is nothing quite so satisfying as a great holiday film, and that's due to the fact that there are so few of them. There have been only two films added to the list of classic holiday films in almost 30 years. One is "A Christmas Story" (1983) and the other is the strangely overlooked "The Family Stone" (2005). This movie can easily be added to those that we cheerfully call "perennial favorites", and if you haven't seen it, you should.

Part of the problem may be the title, which, alas, means nothing. There's no indicator that it's a holiday movie. It's frustratingly bland, but the movie itself a lovely, screamingly retro holiday fantasy that adheres to the conventions of the genre while also giving it some real humanity.

That's the key to any real holiday classic: it's got to have the right mix of reality and fantasy. The apex of this recipe is, I think, "Miracle On 34th Street" (1947), which works whether you believe the Edmund Gwynn character is really Kris Kringle or not.

But there can be fantasy of another type, too, which means it only has to be a beautiful dream.

1942's "Holiday Inn", with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, has a plot unmoored from reality, but we revel in the beauty of its daydream: it always snows on Christmas, everyone you know is talented and beautiful, your true love will come back and the worry and the harm of the world can be kept at bay by a warm fire.

It's what we want from a Christmas movie. Hey, it's what we want from Christmas.

This is what you get from "The Family Stone", which was written and directed by Thomas Bezucha. I know the family depicted in the film is unreal -- they are too liberal, too funny, too beautiful -- but the difference, for me, is that I desire this fantasy family in a holiday movie. I want to dive into it. But "The Family Stone" -- also like the best holiday fare -- has just enough anger and raw-edged emotion to keep it from sliding into treacle.

You need that pinch of reality to make the warming balm of the Christmas spirit appreciated. The salvation accorded to George Bailey by Clarence the Angel wouldn't keep cheering us every year if the deep wounds that George suffers did not seem so real. Even the gentle redemption of Charlie Brown in 1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas" wouldn't be so cheerfully anticipated every year if the meanness of the rest of the gang wasn't so accurately depicted.

The reality of the outside world in "The Family Stone" comes in the unreal shape of Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays an uptight (!) business executive who has become engaged to Family Stone heartthrob Ben, played by Dermot Mulroney. Even though the Stone family is obviously quite successful, they play by the outdated Yankee rule which mandates that even if you want to accumulate money you never tell anyone you want to accumulate money.

So Sarah, as Meredith Morton, upsets the family dynamic, and also makes the parents wonder whether their golden boy doesn't have a serious case of arrested development. The parents are played by Diane Keaton - who creates a very real, very damaged, very loving person here -- and Craig T. Nelson, who hits all the right notes. They make a great couple.

The family is rounded out by Thad (Ty Giordano), who is gay with a black boyfriend (Brian White), earth mother Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), stoner brother Ben (the absolute pitch-perfect Luke Wilson), and the stunning Rachel McAdams as the slightly rebellious and somewhat obnoxious Amy.

Director Bezucha keeps his detailed script humming right along - he seems to have every little detail, every terrific edit, every bit of comic timing, worked out like a dream. This is a beautifully realized film.

Yes, yes, I know -- you've read the description of the characters and it seems all a little too unreal. It is, it really is.

But isn't that what the best movies are for?

Rent "The Family Stone" and watch it Christmas Eve.