‘Family Stone’ ladles on comedy forgivably thick

By Mike Clark, USA TODAY

The Family Stone is as stuffed with beguiling performances — some of them unexpectedly good — as its script is overstuffed. And though even the beguiled may feel manipulated the next morning (or when hitting the exits), the players put it over by a nose. Happy holidays.

Plunked from an intended earlier opening date into today’s warm and fuzzy mid-December slot (a sign of studio confidence), this is the seasonal family comedy that emerges at the end of every year, the kind that’s safe for Grandma. You sense this in the coming attractions when an uptight Sarah Jessica Parker falls in some kitchen-floor goop. Primitive chuckle, anyone? (Related video: Watch a clip from The Family Stone)

Of course, you wouldn’t know from the same ads that fatal illness is a key plot component, that one of the family’s five siblings is deaf and gay and wants to adopt, or that a seemingly straight-arrow dad likes funny stuff in his brownies. You can argue over whether these issues add depth to, or distract from, the more conventionally comic romantic entanglements that are the source of some solid laughs. But this is one busy wannabe heart-tugger.

The scorecard, and you need one, goes like this. Dermot Mulroney (his best performance ever) is an overachieving elder son in a miscast courtship with neurotically edgy Parker (never better). Younger sisters are married and pregnant Elizabeth Reaser and snooty cutie Rachel McAdams. Brothers are hearing-impaired Ty Giordano and a frequently stoned, what-me-worry-ish Luke Wilson (never better).

Welcoming all to their New England home are their somewhat unconventional parents, Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson. But daughter McAdams (the one sibling who has already met Parker) is aggressively rude to Mulroney’s not-quite fiancé. Whereupon Wilson rather inexplicably starts to see something beneath Parker’s pitifully gauche facade. Whereupon Parker’s more composed, silky-haired sis (Claire Danes) shows up, and Mulroney’s eye starts to wander.

You could compose an entire movie (or maybe a poem) about being a young single guy and having Danes show up for Christmas unexpectedly.

This one shoots out in myriad but mostly entertaining directions, depending on that old movie standby that has an element of truth. If you want to unfreeze a Parker-like prig, pump her with booze and some Maxine Nightingale at a neighborhood bar.

Though mostly untested writer/director Thomas Bezucha lays it on mighty thick at times, he is obviously gifted with actors. The same studio, Fox, has another family comedy opening next week: the predictably phony and phoned-in Cheaper by the Dozen 2. At least this holiday entertainment shows a little heart, even if it’s flashing in neon on its sleeve.

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