January 09, 2006

The Family Stone

The Family Stone is a surprise not so much for what it is — if you think the trailers hint at a Meet the Parents redux, plot-wise you're really not too far off — but for how perfectly well it is what it is. Sarah Jessica Parker is an analogue for Ben Stiller to be sure, but while the Byrnes are a clan of utter farce, the Stone family is complex, believable, and honest. Meridith's offences thus struck far closer to home than those of a certain Focker, because I was more invested in the outcome on both sides.
There are plenty of times where I laughed at the chaos and tension, but plenty others where I didn't. One scene at the dinner table had me shifting in my seat I was so uncomfortable; I had already grown to care for all of the characters by that point, and the deep pain boiling just under the surface felt all too real to me. Perhaps the best screenplay of the year, the gags and the drama are cut from the same truthful cloth. Had the movie kept me a little more distant the culture clash may have been hysterical; instead, it sat me at that table and made me linger for a while, giving me no choice but to examine a divisive issue from an entirely new perspective.
The movie takes a similarly no nonsense approach with its characters. Meridith is the constricted conservative and the Stones are the lenient liberals. By refusing to approach either camp anything less than objectively, the film finds plenty to criticize and celebrate about each and every character. That none of them are without flaws makes it them that much easier to connect with. That the Stones (one in particular actually) help Meridith to strip away her rigid pretentiousness is no surprise. That the Meridith they unearth helps them strip away their own thinly veiling judgemental pretentiousness, forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths and help them face approaching tragedy is something of a revelation. We see the best and worst of all their natures.
Despite all of that, the humour remains threaded quite abundantly throughout, and it is almost certainly the sharpest and most intelligently-crafted humour of the year. When the punch lines do come, and in some cases pile up rather magnificently, its because the groundwork had already been laid well in advanced, doled out in natural little bits that never bog the film down. The materials builds throughout the movie, and then drops like dominoes, each revelation spotlighting the next until my sides hurt from so much laughing.
Diane Keaton's performance as the Stone matriarch is Oscar-worthy, the first performance of hers in a long time that reminded me that yes, this woman was Annie Hall. Dermot Mulroney's golden boy Everett reminds me why he's cast in so many romantic comedies. Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress I generally rather despise, turns in a unflinching performance worthy of admiration. Craig T. Nelson's patriarch is a humble and generally quiet figure that tries to hold the family together through trials expected and unexpected. Rachel McAdams plays the cruellest and most forthrightly judgemental, but she brought just enough vulnerability and insecurity to the role to win me over. Luke Wilson's promiscuous, waste particle pot-smoker is the only Stone not to judge Parker's character and the first one to get through. In smaller roles, the other actors use their limited screen time to make their presence felt. As the lone kid and the perpetual observer of the chaos all around her, Savannah Stehlin showcases better sheer listening than any performance in recent memory.
The movie I've described should feel heavy-handed and self-important. But it's far too skilful and honest for that, especially the conclusion — which is neither too abrupt nor too tidy. All my questions were answered and I left the theatre quiet but hopeful. ()


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