Christmastime has come for the Stones, including Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) and Sybil (Diane Keaton), and their children, rebellious Amy (Rachel McAdams), stoner Ben (Luke Wilson), deaf and gay Thad (Tyrone Giordano), pregnant Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), and businessman Everett (Dermot Mulroney), who is bringing his uptight girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home with him for the holidays. The Stones immediately dislike Meredith, finding that their tight family ways conflict with her frigidness and unease with their lifestyle. As the holidays wear on, and Meredith calls in her sister (Claire Danes) for reinforcement, the drama escalates in the household, altering the family dynamic in ways nobody was expecting in what was to be a nice, quiet Christmas.
First and foremost, 20th Century Fox's marketing department deserves a leather glove across the face for the way they're marketing "Family Stone" (IMDb listing) If you've seen the ads, "Stone" looks like a laugh riot, with actors dancing to superhits of the '0s and slipping around in spilled food. But what writer/director Thomas Bezucha ("Big Eden") has constructed with "Stone" is far more complicated and sentimental. Maybe that's why the studio is afraid to tell audiences what they're really buying a ticket to.
A dysfunctional home for the holidays tale isn't anything cinematically revolutionary, and "Stone" has a lot in common with Jodie Foster's 1995 ode to family terror, "Home for the Holidays." Where Bezucha excels is rendering the tight family circle feel, where insults are flung just as hard as hugs, and split-second shorthand has developed over years of intimacy. The Stones are a snug group, and they feel authentic, which is Bezucha's greatest surprise. The filmmaker gets close to his characters, making it easy to feel their ice toward Meredith, which is crucial to the success of the story.
Clearly, Bezucha is blessed with a tremendous cast that instills "Stone" with an enviable spirit of family chemistry. Luke Wilson has loads of fun with his hippy charmer, who isn't shy about following his heart or a bong hit. Sarah Jessica Parker also manages some great moments, but those only come after she hits the fuss-budget character beats to Meredith one too many times. But nothing tops Diane Keaton. In a very delicate, emotionally devastating role, Keaton's Sybil is a wellspring of parental love, resentment, and ache as she clings tightly to this special holiday, and marvels at her eclectic family. It's extraordinarily touching work from Keaton, and the most inspired performance she's given in years.
Overall, "Stone" is a Disneyland E-ticket ride of a film, spinning around endlessly searching for a concrete tone. Yes, there are moments of broad comedy (most provided by Wilson), but the rest of the film is a fairly thick Mrs. Butterworth syrup of sentimentality. Bezucha is making a tearjerker with "Stone," and he returns to that well repeatedly throughout the film. The cast makes the furious pulling of heartstrings welcome, but by the end, manipulation starts to show and the film runs about 15 minutes longer than it should. Even with an empty tank of ideas by the end of the picture, "Stone" still remains worthy of a view, providing that desired blast of familial idiosyncrasies just in time for the holiday season.
Filmfodder Grade: B