Family Stone, The: Bezucha’s Comedy Starring Diane Keaton

Writer-director Thomas Bezucha takes the possibilities of the “fish out of water” narrative to the extreme in his holiday comedy, “The Family Stone,” an enjoyable if extremely old-fashioned film, which recalls zany Depression-era comedies, such as Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You.”

A feel-good movie, “The Family Stone” may become this year’s “Something’s Gotta Give,” and not only because both comedies star the incandescent Diane Keaton in the lead role, one that may earn her yet another Oscar nomination. Like “Something’s Gotta Give,” “The Family Stone” had multi-generational plot and multi-generational, which should further broaden the appeal of this crowd-pleaser. The studio must have been confident about this film for after early screenings and testings, the release date was pushed back to December.

A comic story about the annual holiday gathering of a New England family, the film shows a generous, all-inclusive heart, embracing every demographic element of America as a melting pot, parents and children, young and old, gay and straight, black and white. At the center is an outsider named Meredith, a high-powered controlling New Yorker, who gives a bad name to the Big Apple and its culture. It was a shrewd decision to cast the role against type with the charming “Sex and the City” star, Sarah Jessica Parker, in her first big screen appearance after the TV series. Parker plays a woman who consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously, just about irritates everyone she meets, as a result of which she becomes the butt of all the film’s jokes.

The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. An impeccably tailored Meredith is seen in a New York department store, barking out orders into her cell phone to an office subordinate, while Christmas shopping with Everett. The plot kicks in, when the eldest Stone son, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), brings his girlfriend Meredith home to meet his parents, brothers and sisters. She’s immediately recognizable as the quintessential tightly wound career woman, with a stylish designer spike-heeled pumps that are utterly out of place when she arrives at the Stone’s cozy, comfy, and well-worn home. The Stone clan shares at least two things in common: They are all eccentric in one way or another, and they are all liberals, leading luxurious upper-middle class life with a remnant touch of bohemian rebelliousness. Indeed, the Stones greet the outside-visitor with a mixture of awkwardness, confusion, and hostility.

The movie is set during Christmas in a small college town, a holiday that resonates like no other time of the year. The story unfolds during a holiday when people are supposed to be more giving, hospitable, and on best behavior. Yet when it comes to Meredith, the Stones can’t seem to get in the spirit of the holiday. Nonetheless, before the holiday is over, stereotypes are contested and shattered, old relationships are unraveled and discarded, and new, truer ones are formed. The impetus is provided not only by the visit of two outsiders (first Meredith and then her sister), but also by the revelation of a terrible secret that threatens to affect the entire family.

Immaculately composed, Meredith is a career woman whose tailored suits, upswept hair, and subtle makeup speak volumes of her personality. She’s controlling, tightly wound, and biased against minorities. Intractable and inflexible, she finds herself out of her element at the Stone house, turning into a wreck as a person. Meredith and Everett make for an unlikely couple. We know it’s only a matter of time before they split and each finds a more suitable partner. A successful exec in Manhattan, Everett flaunts the kind of charm that’s based on his utter unawareness of the effect his attractiveness and easy-going nature have on others.

Meredith’s first encounters with the individual Stone members are chaotic and unforgettable, and they escalate from verbal assaults to physical and even slapstick scenes, in one of which she loses the dish she had worked on all weekend in an effort to appease her hosts.

Reaching the age (60 next year) of playing glamorous grandmothers, Diane Keaton, who’s still striking beautiful, is well cast as Cybil Stone, the strong-willed matriarch who’s the heart and center of the Stone family. An outspoken woman who wants the best for her five children, she’s the ideal mom, accepting each child, male or female, gay or straight, on his or her own merits. Though still gorgeous, a closer look reveals a note of brittleness or fatigue, suggesting that perhaps Cybil is the one with the big secret to reveal.

Kelly Stone (Craig T. Nelson), the family’s soft-spoken, low-key patriarch, is a college professor in his sixties who still cuts an impressive figure. His obvious love for his family drives every decision and move of his. Kelly appears to be the traditional head of the family, but it’s actually Sybil who dominates the family.

Midway, Bezucha introduces another outsider, Meredith’s charming and younger sister, Julie (Claire Danes), who’s exactly the opposite of her sister. Working at a foundation that awards grants to artists, Julie is bright, loose, sexual, in short, everything that Meredith is not. Ironically, it’s Meredith who enlists Julie’s help of her younger sister; she needs her moral support to handle the Lions” den. When Julie arrives, Meredith is in complete state of disorientation and chaos, having gone from one public humiliation to another. Not surprisingly, though, Julie’s presence makes things worse for Meredith because everyone takes immediate liking to her.

As the story unfolds, most of the characters transform. Hence Everett starts out as a button-downed and straight-laced, but by the end, he returns to his real personality. Deep down, Everett is not the over-achieving, submissive suit. Everett is really like the rest of his family, loose and bohemian, with fondness for free-flowing conversation and candid, hearty laughter, elements that couldn’t find expression while with Meredith.

Everett’s brother, Ben (Luke Wilson) seems to have strayed the farthest from his family’s New England roots. A film editor living on the West Coast, Ben is unpredictable and mischievous, traits that are reflected in the ultra-casual clothes he wears (flannel shirt, sweat pants). Providing a dramatic contrast to his straight-and-narrow brother, Ben is the first to see that beyond the surface Meredith is not the monster she appears to be.

Amy (the beautiful Rachel McAdams), Everett’s younger sister, is the most passionate and outspoken member of the Stones, and also the one with an open hostility toward Meredith. Seeing herself as honest, but not mean, Amy expresses her uncensored candor in her sardonic wit. Initially, Amy rejects Meredith because of what she represents, fashionable yuppie success, but eventually, she comes to realize that she would reject anyone who was brought into the family from the outside, because outside is about change, and Amy resists any change.

The other siblings are s Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) and Thad (Ty Giordano), the youngest son, who’s both deaf and gay, living with a black companion, Patrick (Brian White).

As noted, “The Family Stone” is a modern version of the eccentric families seen back in the Depression era in Capra’s movies, such as “You Can’t Take It With You,” which won the 1938 Oscar. Based on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Pulitzer-prize stage hit, adapted to the screen by Robert Riskin, “You Can’t” is a zany comedy about a madcap family that believes in free enterprise, in which each member is dedicated to his/ her crazy habits.

As scripter and helmer, Bezucha tweaks the material into the sentimental populism character of the Capra films. Meant as a serio comedy about life lessons, “The Family Stone” increasingly becomes schmaltzy, with hugs, kisses, and reconciliations, particularly after the big secret is disclosed.

The old-fashioned “Family Stone” stands in sharp opposition to the satirical portraits of American families in the modernist films of edgier indie directors like Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” which also starred Luke Wilson) and Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt.” Though Bezucha began his career as an indie filmmaker, his work is decidedly mainstream in its sentimentality and lack of irony or subtlety. This is a film in which what you see is what you get.

End Note:

For those interested, the following is a description of the plot and central characters in “You Can’t Take It With You.” Jean Arthur’ Alice Sycamore and Jimmy Stewart’ Tony Kirby fall in love, but there’s a problem: His family is wealthy and snobbish and hers is freewheeling and eccentric. Alice’s grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) dropped out of the rate race years ago, and her mother Penny (Spring Byingron) dabbles in painting and sculpture, before starting to write plays when a typewriter is delivered to the house by mistake. Alice’s sister, Esie (Ann Miller) spends her days practicing to be a ballet dancer, coached by a flamboyant Russian (Mischa Auer). Alice’s father (Samuel S. Hindes) is in the basement inventing fireworks, while Essie’s husband, Ed (Dub Taylor) is printing up leaflets that innocently get the family investigated by the police for subversion. Eventually, the head of the Kirby household (Edward Arnold) comes to visit Alice’s family and fireworks, both figurative and literal, ensue.