The culture clash between a high-strung New Yorker and her boyfriend’s free-spirited kin yields a smart, tart but mildly undercooked Christmas pudding in “The Family Stone.” Writer-director Thomas Bezucha’s lovingly mounted ensembler has many heartfelt moments and a keen ear for the rhythms of domestic life, which make the neatly gift-wrapped outcome somewhat disappointing. Delayed from a November opening, producer Michael London’s “Sideways” follow-up reps a classy holiday release for Fox that should connect with auds of all ages, though Sarah Jessica Parker’s distractingly out-of-sync performance will likely spur mixed reactions.
From its postcard-worthy opening credits, featuring wintry snapshots of a New England country house set to the tune of “Let It Snow,” pic frames itself as a homage to that quintessential movie about family, holidays and the inevitability of change, “Meet Me in St. Louis.”
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But where Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 classic spent a whole year with the family Smith, allowing for a beautifully rounded portrait of their resilience in the face of everyday crises, “Stone,” which unspools over one dizzyingly hectic holiday, reps a comparatively ungainly blend of screwball comedy, romantic drama and Lifetime weepie. That it plays as well as it does is no small testament to Bezucha’s palpable love for his characters.
The one character arguably exempt from that embrace is Meredith Morton (Parker), a chronically uptight Gotham career woman who dreads the prospect of spending Christmas with boyfriend Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) and his family.
The Stones are her polar opposites — a loose, slightly wacky bohemian clan, thoroughly accepting of their own quirks but less tolerant of others. The most critical of the bunch is Everett’s mom Sybil (Diane Keaton), a cheerfully outsized personality whose hairstyle suggests a more matronly Susan Sontag.
Sybil and husband Kelly (a terrific Craig T. Nelson) have four other kids: gentle Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), married and pregnant with her second child; Ben (Luke Wilson), a droll slacker who dwells comfortably in Everett’s shadow; prickly, tomboyish Amy (Rachel McAdams); and Thad (Ty Giordano), who is gay, deaf and completely lovable, and whose partner Patrick (Brian White) is also staying for the holidays.
From the moment she walks in the door, Meredith’s stiff, don’t-touch-me posture and her habit of saying the wrong thing cause her to be ostracized. Amy lays a series of surprisingly cruel psychological traps that drive Meredith to the local inn, while Sybil refuses to give Everett her blessing — or his grandmother’s ring, the other “stone” of the title — when he announces his intention to propose to Meredith.
“What I don’t understand is what he sees in her,” Kelly wonders, and neither Meredith nor the script provides an answer. Meredith’s more offensive faux pas border on social retardation and feel out of place coming from a sophisticated Manhattanite.
By contrast, the Stones, for all their eccentricities, essentially can do no wrong, and if they sometimes feel a bit too good to be true, they’re pleasurable company regardless. Bezucha tosses the viewer into every conversation headfirst, deploying a rough, at times disorienting visual style that works in rhythm with the layers of overlapping dialogue to deliver a pleasingly antic, semi-improvisational feel.
Helmer also knows exactly when laughter should give way to a lump in the throat, handling an especially sensitive plot point — which might have landed the film in perilous “Stepmom” territory — with considerable tact.
But while individual scenes have an authentically off-the-cuff feel, the narrative structure as a whole feels a tad schematic, never more so than when Meredith’s sib Julie (Claire Danes) drops by the house at her sister’s request. Young, beautiful and artistically inclined, Julie charms the socks off the Stones, initiating a string of confrontations and switcheroos that carry pic through to its not entirely believable denouement.
Parker, in a brave but calculated departure from breezy “Sex and the City” territory, can’t help but go overboard in her portrayal of a twitchy neurotic. Still, thesp gets to show some impressive range in the third act, when Meredith goes on an all-night bender and then must cope with the aftermath.
Keaton embodies the formidable Stone matriarch with an offhand sense of humor that cuts like a knife. As Amy, a deglammed but still radiant McAdams proves once again that she’s the real deal, delivering a deliciously feisty performance in an entirely different key from her work in “Mean Girls.”
Nelson makes a wonderfully affectionate father figure whose anger, when provoked, is fearsome to behold. The usually stiff Mulroney does some of his best, least inhibited acting as Everett, while Wilson, as Ben, appears to have taken a few smart tips from older brother Owen.
Using tight compositions and closeups, cinematographer Jonathan Brown induces a pervasive sense of claustrophobia within the Stones’ manse, itself a marvelously idiosyncratic piece of production design by Jane Ann Stewart. Michael Giacchino’s score, inevitably more straightforward than his pulse-pounding orchestrations for “The Incredibles” and “Lost,” is supplemented by a steady stream of vintage holiday tunes.