Help, I can’t stop watching The Family Stone. If it’s on TV — and it always is, considering we’re knee-deep in December — I must stop and watch it as if it’s a long-lost episode of Breaking Bad. I write this as a confession because I fully admit that The Family Stone is a terrible movie.
The Family Stone is the 2005 comedy in which Dermot Mulroney and Luke Wilson play brothers. This fact alone should make you want to shoot the TV with Ralphie’s BB Gun. I’ll unwrap the plot for you anyway. Sweet Everett (Mulroney) is inexplicably in love with an uptight exec named Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker). We know she’s uptight because her hair is firmly placed in a bun that resembles a cinnamon roll. He decides to bring her home for Christmas so she can meet the fam.
Big mistake. The Stones are a tight-knit upper middle class family who revel in their progressiveness yet don’t seem aware of their inclusiveness. Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) is pregnant and has a remarkably well-behaved daughter. We don’t care about Susannah. Ben (Wilson) is a good-natured, winking San Francisco filmmaker. Thad (Ty Giordano) is deaf and gay and wants to adopt a baby with his African-American partner, Patrick (Brian White). Amy (Rachel McAdams) is the spoiled brat baby of the family. Patriarch Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) is a thoughtful doormat. Matriarch Sybil (Diane Keaton) has breast cancer — which is tragic, but it does not give her a reason for sneering to Meredith upon her arrival, “Happy to entertain you my dear.”
The Stones are brutal to Meredith. She doesn’t want to sleep in the same room as Everett and the family reacts as if she’s told them there is no Santa. During a game of charades, Amy makes her mime out the obscure 1968 mystery movie The Bride Wore Black and then calls her out as a racist. Sybil, the most inhospitable hostess this side of New England, yells at her about making coffee. They’re all wretched. Miserable Meredith calls in her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come for moral support, apparently because the cast wasn’t quite crowded enough.
I suppose there’s an addictive schadenfreude element to the first act of The Family Stone. All families by nature are dysfunctional around the holidays, so seeing big-named stars take bickering to uncomfortable new levels and picking on Carrie Bradshaw is strangely fulfilling. Yes, your family fights too, but is your mom telling a virtual stranger about the boy who “popped your cherry”?
The cringe-fest reach as all-time high/low during the bustling Christmas Eve dinner. First dingbat Julie asks whether Thad and Patrick have a preference about their race of their unknown adopted baby. Then Meredith asks whether they’re concerned about raising a gay child. Sybil insists she wishes all her boys were gay so they’d never leave her. The entire awkward laugh-free conversation culminates in Meredith questioning why anyone would ever want a gay child. “I just think anyone would want a normal child,” replies this allegedly successful, well-traveled businesswoman from tony Bedford, New York. Thank goodness Kelly has the good sense put us all out of our collective misery and shout at her “That’s enough!!!”
Perhaps sensing that his good-times family-friendly movie has just taken a turn for the truly bizarro, writer-director Thomas Bezucha — who has made just one movie, Monte Carlo, in the interim — proceeds to turn his project into a full-fledged comical farce. In just a few hours, Everett goes from picking out an engagement ring for Meredith to falling in love her sister just because they have one pleasant conversation. Ben and Meredith also bond and make eyes at each other in a bar while listening to the best of 70s pop. As Meredith hair comes down, so does the wall around her icy, vaguely bigoted heart. Let that freak flag fly, Meredith. Let it fly. None of this is remotely credible. Ben and Meredith have less chemistry than Amy and a hair brush.
Don’t forget — I called it a full-fledged farce. We’re not done yet. On Christmas morning, the Stones turn into the East Coast version of the Three Stooges as they fall over eggnog in the kitchen. Julie tries on Meredith’s ring yet can’t seem to get it off. Amy’s cherry popper, Brad Stevenson, turns up on the door step. With all these hijinks, it’s easy to forget that Sybil is dying. Good thing Meredith is there to bring out sad nostalgic gifts for the family and remind everyone! But this is hair-down Meredith 2.0. She’s forgiven.
I watched The Family Stone at a screening in the fall of 2005 and remember despising it. The ridiculous sibling swap bothered me on all sorts of levels. Still does. Comedy goddess Nancy Meyers, who loves a good relationship misunderstanding, would never stoop to such absurd levels of comedy. But 12 years later, I have begrudging affection for it, flaws and all. I guess I’m a sucker for a a rare a original, non-franchised holiday comedy featuring a bustling ensemble. And unlike other beloved modern classics such as Elf or Love, Actually, I appreciate that The Family Stone isn’t dripping in hard-to-digest saccharine from start to finish. Or maybe it would be just fun to have Wilson as a Texan older brother for a few hours. You know what? That is enough.
The Family Stone is availabe on Starz On Demand and iTunes.
Also published on Medium.