Which came first: the national yearning for an idealized Christmas gathering — and I do mean Christmas — in which photogenic, dysfunctional family members reunite in a nonsectarian Christian spirit of tolerance, compassion, and the swapping of perfectly wrapped gifts…or the Hollywood holiday movies that insist this outcome is universally attainable? Another year, another warmedy about the importance of improved parent-child relationships and artisanal sweaters is how I see it, with only the trend-sensitive specifics of dysfunction in doubt.
What’s striking and, to my bloodshot eye, welcome about this year’s edition, The Family Stone, is the rather chic urbanity with which writer-director Thomas Bezucha serves up the old genre standby. Maybe it’s because his background is in product branding and store design that Bezucha’s home-for-the-holidays fantasy is more like a beautifully styled cashmere throw draped on an Eames chair than a lumpy granny afghan tossed on a Barcalounger. But somehow, it dramatizes the attractive traps of bohemian-bourgeois aspirations (and snobbism) and, with a light comedic touch, also holds its ground as an old-fashioned and even sweet story about love — and the swapping of perfectly wrapped presents.
Of the five adult children who gather for Christmas at the New England home of their handsome parents Sybil and Kelly Stone (Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson), the oldest, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), is the polished corporate go-getter; Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) is the traditional wife-and-mother; Ben (Luke Wilson) is the SoCal loosey-goosey guy; Amy (Rachel McAdams) is the pretty rebel; and Thad (Ty Giordano) is the deaf one. Also the gay one, hoping to adopt a child with his black boyfriend.
The saving grace for the sophisticated clan in The Family Stone is that Thad’s sensitive-issue grand slam is not the story. Instead, what rattles the Stones is the introduction of Everett’s buttoned-down, sleeked-up fiancée, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), whose tightly wound career-exec personality is at odds with the family’s own proud sense of liberal outspokenness in general and Sybil’s forceful plans for her son’s happiness in particular. (The sly title refers as well to the disposition of an heirloom diamond ring.) The very bun on Meredith’s head seems to annoy Sybil (and inflame Amy, so proudly unkempt), and Parker has a great time being the anti–Carrie Bradshaw while Keaton-as-matriarch is a particular joy — funny, beautiful, elegant, touching, and at ease with a familiar, get-out-your-hankies holiday subplot.
With the Stones doing a number on her self-confidence, Meredith buses in her sister Julie (Claire Danes) as an ally and that’s where the romantic geometry gets fancy. Suffice it to say that at one point, Meredith does let her hair down and Parker gets to put in a performance as endearing as we like from her. How did Bezucha get this glam a cast into this traditional a pie? I don’t know — it’s a secret Christmas recipe.