Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 19, 2005 1:57 pm 
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Christmas with updated stereotypes

This is a family homecoming Christmas romantic comedy. That's a mouthful. It's about too many things, and its logic gets tangled pretty quick.

The premise is simple: businessman Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings the lady he wishes to marry, a sharp businesswoman, home to his parents and siblings for Christmas. This lady, a certain Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker, not at her best), is presented to us as being uptight, bossy, and annoying. Everett wants mom Sybil (Diane Keaton) to turn over “the family stone,” his grandmother’s wedding ring, to give to Meredith. Sybil will have none of it, and the whole family, whose members are loving – among themselves anyway – and laidback, stonewall Meredith from the start, ostensibly to protect Everett from disaster.

Whether this behavior is proper or necessary remains to be judged, but initially everything is glossy and appealing. No one but Meredith seems to have any flaws that aren’t loveable. Everett has a pretty, at-loose-ends sister, Amy (Rachel McAdams), and two brothers. These are both super-easy to take. First is the forever smiling Thad (Tyrone Giordano), everyone's pet, who safely covers a handful of minorities: he’s gay and deaf, and has a black boyfriend (Brian White). And not to worry: the happy gay pair are good-looking and well off, with nice clothes and a posh car. They’re quite a contrast, incidentally, to another gay holiday homecoming brother, the dangerous, edgy, hysterically funny one in Jodie Foster's more down-to-earth 1995 Home for the Holidays. But then, that was Robert Downey Jr. He had a lot to say, as he usually does.

The straight brother is Ben (Luke Wilson), and he’s sloppy but sexy, a real Zen surfer boy. Ben is a far better foil for Meredith than the stiff Everett, and his attraction to her is telegraphed from the get-go. Mom is Diane Keaton and dad is Craig T. Nelson. Who’s not to like? Except for Meredith. But we know the Sex and the City girl will be rewarded for her sufferings.

Meredith can’t seem to do anything right. When everybody, led by the smiling but mean ex-hippy mom, starts excluding and stonewalling her, she’s naturally terrified. I’m still trying to figure out why we're supposed to be amused by that. After taking Amy’s bedroom because sleeping with Everett “wouldn’t feel right,” she is overwhelmed with guilt and discomfort, moves to the local inn, and calls in her sister Julie – who turns out to be the loose, self-assured Claire Danes. Guess what? Julie clicks with Everett right away. Opposites attract, I guess.

The in-jokes and deaf sign language that exclude Meredith aren’t funny. Sarah Jessica Parker’s cranked-up uptightness isn’t funny; it’s just tense and forced. It would be callous to find her predicament funny. The family just isn’t being nice, and eventually they admit it. But even though she gets drunk with Ben and loosens up and brings in Brad, the local cop and Amy’s once and future boyfriend, for Christmas breakfast, Meredith isn’t transformed. She remains desperate. It takes Parker too long to unwind from her excessive schtick. Even her later moves seem to be made out of desperation – and bad judgment. Her sleeping with Ben – even though they don’t have sex – isn’t redeeming to either of them.

The big question about this plot is: if Sarah Jessica Parker’s character is so wrong for Dermot Mulroney’s well-dressed organization man -- wrong indeed it would seem on any terms for anybody as far as this family is concerned -- why then is she nonetheless fine for the shabbier, more disreputable brother, Ben? And another question is: why does the third brother have to be both deaf and gay, with a black lover? And when they come back with the boy they’ve adopted (“Gus”) next Christmas, why must he turn out to be black, and a boy? Don’t gay males ever adopt girls? Why not an Asian girl, if we're flavoring the soup?

This kind of designated-minority casting rules out any depth of character development. To top it off and set us up for tears to flow during the brief Christmas-next-year sequel, dad Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) quickly, furtively, but early on reveals to Ben that Sybil is ill, and not going to last long into the New Year. Unlike those of more sophisticated theater or film, the designations in The Family Stone remain superficially tacked on because dialogue isn't provided to flesh them out. Ben shows a weepy face when he gets the news, and we're done.

And then we go from schticks and mugging to slapstick. Before long Meredith’s Christmas breakfast is slop on the floor and everybody’s sliding around on the linoleum. One can only assume writer-director Bezucha has realized he’s gotten his plot in a mess and wants to hide that by muddling things completely.

What is The Family Stone about, anyway? The comic switch of brothers and sisters means it’s about finding the right mate. Gee whiz, you just don’t know how thing's are gonna turn out, do ya! Families can help – but the flaw of this implication as mentioned is a basic illogic. On a superficial level the movie is about a family closing ranks against a nerdy, bossy, uptight female outsider. The family becomes like a school that excludes the new boy. Is Meredith only messing up because she’s being so badly treated? No, because from the start, before she even arrives, she’s presented as a cell-phone addicted, super-uptight, self-centered nerdy bore. There remains a confusion, though, whether she’s unfairly treated or just plain bad news, and this leads to the uncertain logic of her suddenly becoming okay for the other brother.

This may be a great Christmas movie, considering the recent competition. It’s not unbelievably negative and in horrible taste. But it isn’t very real either, and its sense of family values seems badly confused.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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