%photo13% The Christmas season means Christmas movies -- or at least it used to. According to a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, this December will be the first in a while in which there are no holiday-themed films being released -- and next year doesn't have any planned from Hollywood, either. That's not entirely a bad thing: In the last several years, Christmas movies have meant junk like "Christmas With the Kranks." But there's one gem amidst the debris we think is worth rediscovering: "The Family Stone."
Released about a week before Christmas in 2005, this comedy-drama from writer-director Thomas Bezucha is, like the family it chronicles, a bit of a lovable mess. With almost as many characters as a Robert Altman film, "The Family Stone" introduces us to the Stones, a New England family who are coming together at Mom's (Diane Keaton) and Dad's (Craig T. Nelson) house for the holidays. The Stones have five grown children ranging from the snotty Amy (Rachel McAdams) to the easygoing Everett (Dermot Mulroney), who is bringing his uptight businesswoman girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home to meet his family. But when certain family members find Meredith to be cold and aloof, it starts to create tension in the household, especially considering that one Stone in particular has a secret she has to share with the rest of the clan.
What happens after that set-up? A little bit of everything: romantic trysts, tearful revelations, horribly awkward slapstick comedy, surprisingly insightful observations about the difficulties of being part of a family. "The Family Stone" doesn't have what you'd call a smoothly humming narrative engine, but in its own way it's a very touching look at how the holidays become so difficult because it forces us to reevaluate our lives around people who know us so intimately that they see through us like X-rays.
And while Bezucha sometimes loses the handle on his many plot strands, he never stops loving his characters -- and getting you to love them, too. Adorably obnoxious, McAdams is really fun in a supporting role, while Keaton and Nelson anchor the entire film with their warm, confident presence. Of a solid cast, perhaps the nicest surprise is Parker, who is, in essence, playing the more hardened, less happy version of Carrie Bradshaw from "Sex and the City." Where Carrie is a snarky, flirty New Yorker, Meredith is all wound-up insecurity and big-city coldness -- it took a risk for Parker to play someone so potentially unlikable, but she manages to make us sympathize with Meredith, no matter how deep she puts her foot in her mouth.
Family dysfunction has been the theme of a lot of recent holiday movies, and "The Family Stone" is no different. What separates the film, though, is a sincere attempt to look at those bonds with complexity and understanding. Family get-togethers rarely go smoothly, and certainly neither does "The Family Stone," which has more dopey moments than we'd care to admit. But Bezucha and his cast eventually build to a pretty poignant ending that, no matter the bumpy road it took to arrive there, actually gets at the heart of what makes coming home for the holidays so painful and yet so meaningful.