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Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Family Stone

Okay, so Friday this HUGE winter storm was predicted and sure enough the snow was coming down very hard. The roads were not plowed or salted and driving was a mess. It took me half an hour to dig out my car just to get in it, but I was determined to get to the Essex Outlet Cinemas to see The Family Stone, if for no other reason than to prove to Dale and Karen Chapman that I take my movie-going seriously. I expected to arrive to an empty parking lot and stagger in like Isabel Jewell wandering exhausted into Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (the original, not the crappy 1973 musical remake). Instead I find myself faced with a full parking lot and a crowded lobby. Apparently when the schools and businesses are closed because of a blizzard the citizenry that can not possibly get to their jobs or their classes can still find their way to the Essex Outlet Cinemas for nachos, Pepsi, and an afternoon movie. And wouldn't you know, not a Chapman in sight. Still, I did get to chat with Barry, the projectionist, who no doubt thinks I'm deranged because I tried to say the word "projectionist" and found myself drawing a complete blank. I hate it when that happens. The curse of growing older.

And speaking of the curse of growing older, so we have Diane Keaton's career. How odd to have gone from playing Keanu Reeve's lover in 2003's Something's Gotta Give to playing Dermot Mulroney's mother two years later in The Family Stone. Diane is drifting into dangerous waters, still damned attractive yet old enough to play the mother of five grown adults. For this film though, being mom is the key to being the star.

Keaton and Craig T. Nelson play the parents of adult children who are returning home for the
annual Christmas get-together. In other households it might be called a "Christmas celebration" but for the Stones it is more of a get-together as there is not much celebrating going on. To say this is a "quirky" family is an understatement. The parents, of course, are sensitive, caring, perfect, loving, children of the 1970s that have spawned an eclectic brood: Everett (Dermot Mulroney), a buttoned- down Wall Street success story; Ben (Luke Wilson), a pot-smoking California writer; Amy (Rachel McAdam), an unlikeable pain-in-the-butt troublemaker; Thad (Tyrone Giordano), the gay and deaf jokester, and Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) the traditional homemaker and mother. Also included are extended family members Patrick (Brian J. White), Thad's life partner, and Elizabeth (Savannah Stehlin), Susannah's daughter.

With this group under one roof one could expect almost anything to happen, but this year the focus is definitely not on the existing family unit but on a certain potential addition ~ Everett's soon-to-be fiancee Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). To say Meredith is tightly wound is an understatement. She is so uptight you could insert a lump of coal in her rectum and have a diamond emerge in about 20 minutes. I kid you not.

Poor Meredith. Even before she arrives, she has already been trashed by various members of The Family Stone who have either met or talked to her on the phone during the past year. Her faults, highlighted by her most grievous offense, throat-clearing, have been exchanged like recipes and so by the time she meets the Stone parents, Sylvia and Kelly, she is perceived by just about everybody as some notorious wanted killer, everybody that is except Ben, who, being the free-spirited son, sees the good in her despite the mounting series of horrible faux pas she innocently commits that offend the family at every turn.

By the time they settle in for a Christmas Eve family dinner Meredith has already alienated her
would-be mother-in-law as well as most of the Stone siblings. She still has Dad (Craig T. Nelson's Kelly) on her side, but his fuse is burning too. Dinner is her opportunity to either redeem herself or finish the job with the rest of the clan and humiliate herself totally. It should not be hard to guess that with Meredith's skill she manages to inadvertently insert both her feet in her mouth while making some horribly obtuse comments directed at Thad and his partner Patrick, managing to offend everyone by seeming to sound racist (Patrick is African-American), homophobic, and insensitive to Thad's disability, which, in this family, is hardly noticeable at all as everybody signs and speaks, including Thad, so his deafness isn't even mentioned until Meredith brings it up.

Poor Everett. He is stuck on a tight-rope, trying to balance his family's disdain (and his own) over Meredith's behavior with his loyalty to her. This is only complicated when Meredith moves out of the Stone home to a nearby hotel and urges her sister Julie (played by Claire Danes) to join her for support in this difficult time.

In no time at all The Family Stone turns into a bit of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as various characters finally grasp that they may be mismatched even though the audience has known this from the beginning.

Meanwhile, as love is resolved and the broom is finally removed from Sarah Jessica's rear-end (figuratively, people, not literally) the movie slips in a secondary plot that it would be wrong to spoil for someone coming into the film "fresh." It certainly came as a surprise to me as I am sure it did to anyone who had seen the previews to The Family Stone. This rolicking, side-splitting, Meet The Parents type of comedy is not quite the romp the advertisements claim it is. It is actually a much deeper, darker, and ultimately more satisfying movie with a great deal of poignancy and character development seldom seen in mainstream films today.

As in all families, there are secrets, and secrets seldom stay that way for long. In The Family Stone once one member of the family knows something it is not long before they all do, and in the end the lesson of the movie is that despite their obvious differences of opinion, differences of
lifestyles, of beliefs, and of choices, the one thing they can agree on is the value and appreciation of their family, which is a perfect message to remember during the Christmas season or any time of the year.

Director and writer Thomas Bezucha has assembled an amazing cast for his sophomore feature film (his first film was 2000's Big Eden). The fact that he has spent five years crafting the language, the story and the nuances of what he wanted the Stones to represent is obvious in the execution. Clearly the cast believed in his commitment as well, and the results are an admirable adult take on relationships and what family means.

I would encourage anyone who hasn't said "I love you" to their Mom or Dad or even to a brother or sister in a while to take a break for a couple of hours and head over to the Essex Outlet Cinemas for The Family Stone. You need a refresher course in being a member of the tribe. Better yet, take your Mom or Dad, invite your brother or sister. As my Grandma Cecil used to say "It couldn't hurt".

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