Stone Cold

Skewed sensibility and smugness steal the warmth from Sarah Jessica Parker and 'The Family.' Review C

December 16, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In the home-for-the-holidays comedy-drama The Family Stone, the talented and quirky-pretty Sarah Jessica Parker gives an excruciating performance. It's a keenly self-conscious caricature - the bold, showy kind that often wins awards yet sends audiences running from the theater. (She has just been nominated for a Golden Globe.)

Playing an uptight New York businesswoman for writer-director Thomas Bezucha, Parker obliterates any vestige of her natural warmth and whimsy. This woman doesn't know how to be herself. Bezucha ratchets up her tension to Code Red within minutes. He keeps her there for what seems like hours. But she doesn't earn any sympathy - unless you count the growing desire to put her out of her misery. Her insecurity wounds others like a javelin.

The movie doesn't fail because of a single misbegotten character. It fails because of what she says about the movie's whole world-view. Forget Yuletide-reunion cheer. Parker's stick-up-her-spine outsider, Meredith Morton, earns the instant enmity of the Stones, a boho New England family headed by sixtysomething college professor Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Sybil (Diane Keaton). Their eldest son, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), wants to marry Meredith. But the youngest member of the clan, Amy (Rachel McAdams), has already met her and disapproves. The only Stone ready to cut Meredith any slack is Everett's brother Ben (Luke Wilson) - which makes sense in this movie because Bezucha seems to think that West Coast film editors like Ben (in my experience, the smartest, sharpest people in the business) behave like slackers.

Bezucha may feel he's pointing out the irony of college-town progressives closing ranks against anyone with opposite values or a jarring lifestyle. But this writer-director's every instinct moves him to celebrate the Family Stone and put down Meredith.

I'd be more likely to applaud Bezucha's inclusion of a gay deaf son (Ty Giordano) and his African-American lover (Brian White) - and their quest to adopt a child - if their addition didn't add to the movie's smugness. When Meredith nervously stumbles into questioning whether this couple would want a gay child, you understand why Keaton's Sybil pounces on her. What's unforgivable is the dialogue that follows. Sybil reassures her gay son that she loves him as if he's the one that needs reassurance - even though the family envelops this couple in affection from their entrance, and showers nothing but contempt on Meredith and Everett. The writer-director does finally offer Meredith redemption, but only when she becomes one of the Stones.

The movie might have succeeded as a hands-across-America heart-warmer - about a Blue State family with Red State household loyalty - if Bezucha had individualized all the characters or made their fates surprising. But one sibling (Elizabeth Reaser) disappears from memory while the film is still going on. And every time a new woman or man shows up, like Claire Danes as Meredith's far more acceptable sister (she works at an arts foundation) or Paul Schneider as the hometown boy who deflowered Amy years ago and still yearns for her, you can predict their exact destinies.

Bezucha injects a heavy dose of pathos when cancer darkens the picture. But he does show some talent with other actors - that's why his failure with Parker is so telling and egregious. In the film's high point, Wilson makes Ben's drawling account of a flaky, fluky dream both hilarious (to us) and seductive (to Meredith). And as Amy, the astonishingly versatile McAdams is mean in an entirely different and more lovable way than she was as the lethal blonde in Mean Girls. Amy's shriveling version of truth-telling reflects an inner scampishness, a mischievous rebellion against her own wholesome beauty.

Nelson superbly plays off Keaton. He's a mellow lion in winter, she's a lioness - and a marvel. Keaton has reached an unselfconscious peak of acting authority. She makes each of her scenes funny or credible with her broken-field-run approach to dialogue and her spontaneous physicality. When she can, she elevates the other performers. She and McAdams help Parker turn a slip across the kitchen floor into Meredith's single moment of saving gracelessness. As an artist, Keaton is the opposite of Bezucha. She overflows with generosity.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

The Family Stone (20th Century Fox)

Starring Claire Danes, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Dermot Mulroney, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Luke Wilson. Directed by Thomas Bezucha.

Rated PG-13.

Time 102 minutes.

REVIEW - C

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