Directed by: Thomas Bezucha
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, Claire Danes
Opens: Today, December 16
Warm up your belly muscles and grab a box of Kleenex. When it doesn't have you aching with laughter, "The Family Stone" will have you sobbing like a little girl.
With only his second feature (his first was "Big Eden,"), writer/director Thomas Bezucha has revitalized the holiday homecoming movie, an increasingly dour and dysfunctional genre.
Which is not to say that "The Family Stone" is all gladness and light. The clan of the title has its peculiarities and infighting, and serious intimations of mortality creep into its Christmas celebration.
But while he's a smart observer of family dynamics and personal foibles, Bezucha also exhibits a tremendous generosity of spirit. Plus he's assembled a deep cast.
We get to know the Stone family along with Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is on the verge of getting engaged to Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney ). He wants to take her to his childhood home for Christmas so she can meet her future in-laws.
Meredith is the anti-Carrie Bradshaw, the character Parker played on TV's "Sex and the City." She's a brittle corporate drone, a conservative fashion plate, and such a control freak that she probably starches her Victoria's Secret undies. At the same time, she's painfully insecure in social situations, which leads to babbling.
The family she's marrying into could hardly be more different. Parents Sybil (Diane Keaton) and Kelly Stone (Craig T. Nelson) have retained the bohemian outlook of their youth while nestling comfortably in good old American materialism. Despite living in a house right out of Norman Rockwell, they pride themselves on having raised a brood of free spirits.
Taking that mandate a bit too far is
Ben (Luke Wilson), a thirty-something slacker who must be reminded by his mother that pot smoking is not allowed in the house. Far more conventional is sister Susanna (Elizabeth Reaser), being the one Stone kid who has married and had children.
The other sister, Amy (Rachel McAdams), is a love-frustrated school teacher with a mean (as in cruel) sense of humor and no tolerance for pomposity.
And, yes, Bezucha seems to be testing how much political correctness he can pile on before his movie collapses under the strain. It's a mark of his self assurance that it doesn't ... though it's a near thing.
These characters react to the uptight Meredith with varying degrees of dismay and curiosity. Particularly tough on the newcomer is Amy, who never misses an opportunity to jab a verbal needle, and Sybil, who within minutes knows this woman is all wrong for her son.
The terminally scruffy Ben, on the other hand, thinks this rare creature is pretty hot stuff. He's like a groundhog transformed by his first glimpse of a gazelle.
Things get really complicated with the arrival of Meredith's sister Julie (Claire Danes), who is as open and transparent as Meredith is guarded and neurotic. Why couldn't Everett be marrying her ?
You don't need a crystal ball to see where "The Family Stone" is going, but its predictability does no damage. Bezucha excels at writing pithy dialogue that sounds like what we hear at our own family reunions. And he has an uncanny knack for coming up with situations that go straight for the heartstrings and tear ducts.
There's a silent scene in which Susannah, the oldest child and very pregnant, senses that something is wrong and crawls into bed with her sleeping mother. For a moment it's about a grown child still wanting reassurance from a parent. Then the scene's dynamic shifts and it becomes about a parent needing comfort from her child.
Dare you not to bawl.
The film has been perfectly cast, with top honors going to Parker as the icily miserable Meredith (you don't know whether to sympathize or slap her), Keaton as the protective mother trying to keep a troubling secret and Wilson as the smiling stoner.
In tone "The Family Stone" is a dramedy. It contains some blisteringly funny moments, but there's a sweetness and sadness at work here that tempers the raucousness and gives the film real heart. It's manipulative, sure, but Bezucha manages to hide his strings even as he's pulling them.
Don't be surprised if this one finds itself on your list of holiday perennials.