Movie Review: The Family Stone

This movie is a trainwreck.  I'm somewhat surprised this got released at the height of the holiday season; it seems like the sort of film that would get held by the studio until Spring, when studies dump films that they have no confidence in.

Make no mistake: The studio has no confidence in this movie.  You may have seen the trailer for The Family Stone, or perhaps an ad.  You probably got the impression that it's a mildly zany comedy about a woman trying to win the affection of her boyfriend's family.  Perhaps you thought it would be a slightly higher-brow version of Meet the Parents.  If you thought that, you have fallen for the studio's cunning ruse.  You have been snookered.

The Family Stone appears to have been a comedy, at some point.  Perhaps it was intended as such.  It's difficult to tell, because the humor is very dry.  The script could have been printed on melba toast.  The story board likely looks like a book of New Yorker cartoons.  It's the sort of humor where you recognize the jokes, you understand the jokes, you realize on an intellectual level, that, yes, this is funny in a clinical sense.  It has the essential elements of absurdity to create a joke.  But the material isn't innately funny and it lacks the cleverly written script neccessary to make dry humor work.  This is David Mamet humor with a Joe Eszterhas script.

There's also a weird failure of communication in the script.  The plot has Everett (Dermot Mulroney) bringing his long-time girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to meet his family for the first time at Christmas.  Have you ever heard somebody's name, maybe a few details of her life, and immediately hated her?  Just been filled with an absolute hate, the sort that would cause you to endeavor to make her life hell if you ever met her in person?  No?  Then there will be a fundamental disconect between you and this movie.  Everett's entire family hates Meredith for no reason, at least none that's explained in the movie.  They joke about how much they hate her before she's arrived.  At this point, they've never even met her, except for the spiteful daughter Amy who saw her once on the street.  Presumably everything they know of her has come from Everett, who apparently needs to do a better job of selling his girlfriends to his family. 

Surely, then, there's something really wrong with Meredith?  An obnoxious personality, a character flaw that is so transparent that anyone could understand the Stone's preemptive hatred.  Not really.  She's bland and inoffensive.  The explanation proferred is that the Stones are a laid-back family, while Meredith is too up-tight.  They hate her because she wants them to like her.  So their natural reaction, when faced with a nervous suitor who wants to impress them, is to treat this suitor like crap.  The Stones are just cruel for no reason.  You get the feeling that they're the type of family that would gather together to tear the wings off of flies or melt ants under a magnifying glass. 

We face this problem throughout the movie: Characters do things and have opinions for no rational or explained reason.  For instance: the young man who sloughs off his girlfriend for her sister after talking to that sister for a couple of hours.  He falls so madly in love that it leads to a climactic interception at the bus stop as he desperately tries to persuade her not to leave.  This scene is interesting because the movie actually expends more screen time on the climactic "please don't go!" scene than it does on the entire rest of their relationship.  Seriously.  The entirety of their prior joint screen time is one two-minute scene where they have an inane conversation ("You like to go weird places and look at things?  I like to go weird places and look at things, too!").  This is used to justify a ten minute trying-to-convince-her-not-to-leave-because-he-loves-her-so-desperately scene.  It feels as though we, the audience, have been left out of the explanations that would cause this movie to make any kind of sense.

As for the Stones themselves, they appear to be a Royal Tenenbaum-style family of interesting people, except the writer forgot to make them actually interesting.  We have the free-spirited (yet surprisingly nasty) mother Sybil (Dianne Keaton), the pregnant daughter Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), the gay, deaf son Thad (Tyrone Giordano), the pot-smoking, documentary-editing laid-back son Ben (Luke Wilson), Amy, the daughter who was apparently born with an inability to feel any emotion except hatred (Rachel McAdams), and father Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) and son Everett (Dermot Mulroney), distinguished by the fact that neither of them has any personality whatsoever.  The characters all have some high-concept somewhere that would mark them as Interesting, but the script doesn't follow through on that by making them actually interesting.

Also, the mom has cancer.  This is getting to be a disturbingly common device in families-trying-to-learn-to-love-each-other films: if the mother is too nasty and unlikeable, give her cancer, thereby forcing the audience to feel some sympathy for her and excuse her putrescent character (See, e.g., Stepmom, Pieces of April). 

This movie feels like it didn't start with an idea, or a script, but with connections.  Somebody realized they knew the right people to get Luke Wilson, Dianne Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, etc. to appear in their movie, and from there decided to write a script around the cast.  It's funny; you can clearly see that some characters get lots of lines and screen time because they're played by famous actors/actresses, and other characters practically don't exist because they're not (like the pregnant daughter mentioned above, who shows up a lot but says almost nothing and has no distinguishing character traits beside her pregnancy). 

Finally, there are about 5 minutes of wacky hi-jinks toward the end of the film.  These 5 minutes represent 90% of the trailer.  My guess is that the studio watched the final prints, realized they had a turkey, and decided on a misdirection-based ad campaign.  Pitch it as a goofy family comedy, play up how many big stars are in it, and hopefully enough people will be suckered into watching it to make back what it cost to produce.  Well, my sisters and I were among the suckers, but you don't have to be.  I would strongly advise against watching this movie.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on December 28, 2005 4:40 AM.

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