REVIEW: The Family Stone
Produced by: Michael London
Written by: Thomas Bezucha
Edited by: Jeffrey Ford
Cinematography by: Jonathan Brown
Music by: Michael Giacchino
Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Claire Danes, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Luke Wilson, Tyrone Giordano, Brian J. White, Elizabeth Reaser, Paul Schneider
Every family has a traditional family Christmas film, I’m fairly certain. My family has a few, and they’re probably yours, too: Christmas Vacation, It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf… (I’ve pretty much already exhausted reviewing all my favorites.) Of course, everyone has their oddballs. I like to throw in Die Hard, though not everyone recognizes that one as a Christmas movie (they totally should – family togetherness and such). My mom and sister? They like The Family Stone, and so, more often than not, that’s one of the movies we end up watching this time of year, though I, admittedly, usually end up finding a nice distraction while enjoying the company of family. I’m not a fan of the film, you see, and I’ve seen it enough times to feel like I knew it inside and out. I admittedly got a bit mouthy about it last year, though, despite seeing it a few times, and this upset them both. This year, I figured I’d watch it again on my own and see if I was being unfair to it. Naturally, this also meant that I intended on writing a review of it, too. Here it is.
The film centers around the nominal Stone family, which has a deeply ingrained sense of togetherness, particularly during the Christmas season. This year, though, oldest son Everett is bringing home his girlfriend and intended fiancée, Meredith, whose presence throws the family for a loop. Meredith, whose natural habitat as a career woman in NYC has given her a bit of a pretentious air, is nonetheless very nervous about her stay, and as if to prove her correct, the family doesn’t particularly take well to her, either, no thanks to the baby of the family, Amy, who was the only one to meet Meredith prior to her Christmas visit. Matriarch Sybil doesn’t make matters much better, having already taken Amy’s word for gospel and already judging Meredith before she even enters the home. Their influence even begins to affect Everett, who begins to realize all her faults in the eyes of his family really do bother him, too. How will they cope? Will Everett and Meredith stay together? Will Meredith ever be accepted as part of the family? Will Amy ever stop being such a jerk? And will Meredith realize that she’s facing possibly the most judgmental family ever and leave in the middle of the night before they decide to make an example out of her?
The caustic nature of the Stones are a large part of why I dislike this film. While later revelations are meant to explain to us why they are the way they are, and while the movie doesn’t pretend that they are supposed to be 100% correct in their judgment, it does ultimately side with them in calling out Meredith as a miserable person to be around when, by all reasonable measurements, she just seems to be a socially awkward person trying her best to make the best out of an awkward situation and fit in with the Stone Clan. While Amy and Sybil stand out as the most egregious offenders, pretty much everyone here is guilty of treating poor Meredith like crap from the very beginning – except for one member of the family, whose genial attitude pretty much telegraphs the rest of the plot’s progress, despite the film thinking its audience would be none the wiser. The arrival of Meredith’s sister and the hamfisted way the film treats her arrival only makes the outcome all the more obvious for first timers. Continued viewings only serve to highlight just how abrasive most of these characters are… except, of course, for that one happy-go-lucky character.
I would honestly like to like this film, but as I keep emphasizing, The Family Stone features some of the most caustic and insufferable characters to ever grace a film that aren’t meant to be blatant villains. This results in the movie being genuinely unpleasant, with the most egregious point coming at the Christmas Eve dinner, when a conversation about the youngest son’s sexual orientation turns sour and Meredith asks what is, quite honestly, a perfectly valid question about it – except that everyone takes issue with it and turns on her without any semblance of an apology from them to follow. Sybil in particular is portrayed as having very good “Mother knows best” reasons for being so contemptible. As with all things in this film, we’re asked to have empathy for not the poor outcast but rather the Stones, who continue to be bullies until Meredith is forced to figure out a means by which she can be accepted. Merry… Christmas?
That is the forced perspective that this film takes, wanting so desperately for us to accept the family’s perspective of Meredith’s disagreeable personality and her preposterousness that we, too, turn on her to the point of being just as judgmental and unreasonable towards her as they are. The thing is, I’m just not buying it. Apart from some awkwardness and a tendency to rattle on about certain topics, particularly her relationship with Everett, Meredith actually comes off as one of the more likable people in a film where the rest of the characters’ flaws are largely expected to be accepted as unchanging and correct. And I don’t buy the main plot’s suddenly cheerful resolution, either, in which all the pieces are sorted out and everything is largely right with the world, except for one other little plot twist that serves as a cheap means of rending tears from the audience’s eyes.
The Family Stone isn’t the worst thing in the world, to be quite honest, and its story is actually a solid framework for a much better film. Apart from the truly atrocious nature of most of the characters, this also quite remarkably captures the feel of Christmas, even if is more of a Hallmark moment sort of feel than it is genuine sentiment. I also guess I like Suzanna, the oldest daughter, who largely minds her own business throughout the rest of the film and whose purpose largely serves as a means of providing an excitable little girl and a medium through which this film can borrow a song from a much better film, Meet Me in St. Louis. (You know the one – and at least it’s properly used here as the melancholy song that it is, and it’s not some overproduced cover of the song, either!) These small little triumphs, though, do not overcome the mediocrity of the filmmaking and storytelling, and it’s certainly not enough to overcome one of the most dislikeable bunches of unapologetic jerks you’ve ever been asked to feel empathy for.
So, no, I’m very sorry, but even upon viewing the film on my own twice now this Christmas season, I cannot find very many redeeming qualities in The Family Stone. The message of accepting one another’s faults and muddling through life’s challenges in what is supposed to be the most cheerful of seasons is a solid one and good fodder for a much better Christmas movie. The Family Stone isn’t that movie. It’s just too contrived, too dislikable for too long, and too skewed in favor of the wrong characters to let any of its more redeeming qualities win out in the end. I’ll just have to continue finding some kind of distraction to bide my time whenever the film is put on, I guess… except, now that this review has been written, perhaps it would be better if I keep my mouth shut from this time forward, if only to uphold peace in the family. … I can only try.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1.5 / 5