If every family was as warm and accepting and loving as the Stones in Thomas Bezucha's "The Family Stone," nobody would need holiday movies. Based in a beautifully decorated New England home, and headed by a snugly sweatered Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson, the Stones are a dream family, serving up picture-perfect holiday meals and surrounding their members with unconditional love.
That is, until one of them brings home a new girlfriend for Christmas, and nearly every Stone family member immediately decides that they hate her.
This girlfriend, it should be noted, is played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a performer of such charm that the movie is immediately thrown into some sort of strange bizarro-world.
Who could hate Parker, even when she has her hair in a bun (which, in this movie's shorthand, conveys "uptight," just as a Stone sister's NPR tote bag conveys "free-spirited"), talks on a cellphone a lot and keeps putting her nicely stilettoed foot in her mouth? Her character, Meredith, is actually rather sweet: She's trying hard to make a good impression and failing miserably.
Desperate for support, Meredith calls her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come join her for the holiday, and then things get even more surreal.
Everett (Dermot Mulroney), the eldest Stone son, is on the verge of proposing to Meredith — until he picks Julie up at the bus stop and realizes that he kinda likes her, too. (Julie, you see, has long flowing blond hair, an angelic smile and no apparent cellphone.)
Conveniently, stoner Stone son Ben (Luke Wilson) sees something in Meredith that nobody else seems to see. Meanwhile, almost as an afterthought, somebody has cancer.
Bezucha, whose previous film was the 2000 gay romance "Big Eden," has crafted a fairly outrageous plot and hasn't added enough wit to make it palatable. (The film's occasional random pratfalls seem a desperation tactic.) And too many of the characters are flat: Younger sister Amy (Rachel McAdams) is annoyingly bitchy; gay brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano) is saintly; married sister Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) has no personality at all. You wonder if she's got some secret plotline, perhaps involving her absent husband, but he shows up belatedly at the end, as if Bezucha suddenly remembered his existence.
Things eventually get sorted out, more or less, and "The Family Stone" leaves us with some heartwarming thoughts about family, love and holiday tradition. Some will find it touching, some will be too weary of the plot contrivances and the smug Stone family to care.
For me, the movie's only moment of genuine emotion came from another movie, as the Stone television shows us Judy Garland singing that minor-key holiday classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." A Stone sister is curled up cozily on the couch, watching "Meet Me in St. Louis" — which seems, now that I think of it, a far better idea than watching this movie.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org