The Netflix Report

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Friday, May 19, 2006

The Family Stone

There are some genuine moments of dramatic realism and true emotional connection in this movie. And when they show up, they are in such stark contrast to the rest of the contrived, predictable scripted play-acting that it strikes you like a cold splash of water to the face.

The movie is the second creation of Thomas Bezucha, a man who previously wrote and directed only one film, 2000's "Big Eden." Before that, he had been an executive in the fashion industry. Now he has written and directed two films without ever having been involved in any other aspect of the film industry. Some people live a charmed life!

Not only did he get to create a full-budget Hollywood mainstream movie, he got a bunch of very good actors with name recognition to fill the roles. This is an ensemble movie with way too many characters. You get Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, Craig T. Nelson, and Diane Keaton.

Nelson and Keaton play the parents of a giant brood of kids and their partners who descend on the house for a warm and loving traditional family Christmas. (I say kids, but they range from old teenager/young 20's to full adults.) Nelson and Keaton get most of the genuine drama from their parts with quiet, realistic performances (when allowed by the script). Keaton is particularly mesmerizing and memorable in her role as the mother.

The central catalyst for the action is the grown son (Mulroney) who brings his serious girlfriend to meet the family for the first time. The girlfriend is played by Sarah Jessica Parker, looking absolutely terrible in every closeup they give her. She plays a tightly wound business overachiever who dresses impeccably in expensive business suits and seems to have a fear of personal closeness or touching. Her character talks too much and too fast, and the director uses this as the primary vehicle for telling us that her driven, manic single-mindedness is anathema to the relaxed, sharing, supportive behavior of the family. Of course they all hate her. Of course the son plans to propose on Christmas at the house. Of course they all try to talk him out of it. Of course various complications arise.

The problem is that the complications are taken out of the first chapter of the traditional Hollywood screenplay writers' manual and are played out so linearly and predictably that there is almost no reason to watch the movie develop them on screen. I told Debbie at the 20-minute mark how things were going to play out and then sat there praying that the movie would surprise me and throw an unexpected twist on convention. It never did. As a matter of fact, in a pivotal climactic moment of tension to see whether a love story would end happy or sad, they almost played against expectations and my hopes were momentarily raised. Then they ruined it by falling back on one of the most hackneyed, cliched movie tricks in the book. It was straight out of a 1937 potboiler.

But while you are kicking yourself for sitting through this tribute to conventionality, suddenly at the halfway point of the movie they introduce a subplot that lets Nelson and Keaton carry some scenes with quiet dignity and humanity. This story is played so well it almost makes up for the rest of the film. (I'm being deliberately vague... Watch out for reviews with spoilers.)

The movie as a whole seems self-consciously crafted as an attempt to make it "A Perennial Christmas Favorite... A Tradition For The Whole Family!" From the music to the snow covered white house out in rural suburbia to the important symbology of the Christmas tree to the Christmas references in nearly every scene, it feels like it is trying too hard. In one scene, a woman watches her videotape of "Meet Me In St. Louis" with Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." The source music is used to good effect to underscore an emotional section of the film, but it showcased for me the difference between the two movies.

The 1944 movie is a perennial Christmas classic (thanks mainly to that song), but it did it by not trying so hard. Both films have families dealing with relationship issues and little personal crises. But Minnelli's film had a strength of realism in the script (pulled from the source novelist's actual childhood memories) that doesn't seem as contrived and packed in for the sheer sake of creating and resolving "plot points" in a single weekend.

As with so many of my reviews these days, I have to fall back on: This isn't a bad movie. It just isn't a very good movie. That seems to be the way the studios like it. Keep everything nice and bland, satisfy expectations of the great moviegoing public, and make even new stories seem as safe and predictable as a sequel so the audience knows what they are getting before they ever enter the theater. Come up with a way to promise that to your production company and you too can write and direct a major Hollywood release with no experience or qualifications behind you!

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