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Friday, July 21, 2006

There's a riot goin' on in this house

In Japan, "The Family Stone" is billed as rom-comfare, pairing "Sex and the City" icon Sarah Jessica Parker with the hunkish Dermot Mulroney. Audiences will perhaps be a leetle disappointed to learn that romance between the couple is practically nonexistent and the only people who get to cuddle a little are the sixty-something Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson, starring as the matriarch and patriarch of the Stone family. "The Family Stone" is one of those family-gathering-over-Christmas tales that the Hollywood studios launch from multiplexes every year, but writer/director Thomas Bezucha tries to be different from the mold by mixing as many moods, situations and personalities as possible in 102 minutes -- the whirred-up blend succeeds about 30 percent of the time, but the rest flails and fragments. In the end, Bezucha demonstrates that a family can neither be happy or unhappy but just scatty, slightly unbearable and very privileged. You begin by wanting to like the Stones (how could you not, with Diane Keaton flashing that smile!) but after an hour in their company you just want to down your egg nog and get the hell out of their living room.

The Family Stone Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
News photo
Sarah Jessica Parker (left) and Diane Keaton in "The Family Stone" (C) 2005 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Director: Thomas Bezucha
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (July 21, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

This is basically what outsider Meredith (Parker) feels the minute she walks into the foyer, with the whole Stone family gathered to ostensibly offer their welcome. Meredith is dating Everett (Mulroney), oldest son of the clan who has brought her up to his parents' postcard perfect New England home to meet the family. Mom Sybil (Keaton) takes an immediate dislike to Meredith's super-prim, tightly-chignoned business-exec demeanor, but at least she takes the trouble to hide it. Baby sis Amy (Rachel McAdams) is far less subtle and can barely restrain herself from emptying all ammo right into Meredith's face. Married/pregnant sister Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) is merely bland and reserved while the sloppy, laid-back brother Ben (Luke Wilson) is the only one willing to give Meredith "a chance." Gay, deaf brother Thad (Ty Giordano) is there with his African-American partner Patrick (Brian J. White) -- the pair label Meredith as a rich-bitch bigot, and prepare to bristle at every "gay" and "black" remark she makes.

Unfortunately, Meredith is not the type of woman one would want to root for, as she nervously jabbers all the wrong things ("No parent would wish their child to be gay, don't you think?"), adamantly refuses to share Everett's bedroom, winds up checking in at a hotel and calling her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come and back her up. The Stones love the down-to-earth Julie upon arrival, which further dents Meredith's confidence and makes her more awkward than ever. She's not a bad person but inherently unlovable; it's hard to see how she got a relationship going with Everett in the first place. The Stones, on the other hand, strut their liberal-intellectual-loftier-than-thou badge at every opportunity (Amy carries a well-worn NPR tote bag), but at the same time show a distinct prejudice and intolerance for others not from their circle. Of all the people there, the only genuinely likable character seems to be Elizabeth (Savannah Stehlin), the perky 10-year-old daughter of Susannah. Perhaps Bezucha put her in there to neutralize the horrid grownups.

Bezucha's film works, though, as a thoroughly engrossing case study of the well-off suburban family in America. One thing becomes clear: Bad manners, short tempers and any number of personality flaws take on a different sheen when seen against the backdrop of a huge, tastefully decorated living room with a magnificent Christmas tree; the angry shrieks of female relatives actually sound harmless when heard in a kitchen the size of a Tokyo apartment.

As Luis Bunuel said, "Drama and the space where it takes place, are deeply inter-related," and in that sense, the Stone family have a deep, meaningful relationship that an apartment dweller can only dream about.

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