Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Family Stone (movie review)

We don’t see many movies in the theater anymore.  It’s gotten expensive and my wife has become increasingly sensitive to noisy people in the theaters.  She gets so irritated with rustling, off-movie chatter, and chair kicking, that she’s come close to starting fights in nearly empty theaters.  On the other hand, we get lots of apologies from theater managers and occasionally free passes.  On my end, I’ve gotten so used to DVDs that when I see a movie in the theater I stay at the end and try to click the screen to see the deleted scenes and the director’s commentary.  Since it was the day after Christmas, we relented and went to see the Family Stone.  If you wonder why I keep reviewing chickflix, the answer’s simple I’m the only male in the household and they always tell me to watch  movies with explosions in them by myself.   If I want to see a movie with my wife and daughters,  it tends to be female fare from my wife’s Merchant and Ivory preferences, to the older daughter’s black people swearing at one another comedies.  

Family Stone , directed and written by Tom Bezucha, is one of those big family Christmas movies webbed together by a name cast, intersecting storylines, revealed secrets, and a home that only exists on the pages of magazines.  Like many recent family movies, Family Stone examines the theme of thinning the herd.  In this case, it’s prospective fiancée/daughter in law Sarah Jessica Parker, working hard to take Carrie Bradshaw through the bad makeup mirror, who drives the dramedy.

Terms of Endearment was probably the first box office dramedy, a mixture of laughter and pathos calculated to win actors academy award nominations or at least some acting credibility.  James L. Brooks’s Terms paid off big for Shirley Maclaine, Deborah Winger, and Jack Nicholson.  This time, the candidates are Diane Keaton now making the shift into older woman roles last visited with Nicholson in   Something’s Gotta Give-Rachel Macadams, Canadian actress, looking to escape teen movies-Craig T. Nelson who mostly plays variations on football coaches-Luke Wilson, looking to stop playing patient boyfriends.  There’s a guy who escaped from a role as Hugh Grant’s hearing impaired younger brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral to play a likeable gay hearing-impaired family member.  Actually Ty Giordano was never in Four Weddings and a Funeral, just a nearly identical role in Ashton Kutcher’s A Lot Like Love.  Finally there’s Dermot Mulroney and Claire Danes from Home for the Holidays.  Whoops Dermot Mulroney was Dylan Mcdermott in Jodie Foster’s ode to Thanksgiving complete with gay brother (Robert Downey), but Claire Danes was in that movie too, making her a potential queen of the holiday dramedy at least for this juncture of her “So Called Career”.  The other template for Family Stone appears to be the Katie Holmes, pre-I’m having Tom Cruise’s baby thing, vehicle Pieces of April.  

In addition to the too many to choose from plotlines with common elements, the dramedy has to find a way to segue between the funny elements and the tearjerking elements without coming apart.  While James L. Brooks may be the king of the genre, particularly when it comes to getting his actors oscar nominations through manipulative plotlines, Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog, Gilbert Grape, and Once Around)  is imho the master of the form. Hallstrom has an affection for small light moments dropped into depressing circumstances that keeps his movies more organic than calculated.  For example, My Life as a Dog used the backdrop of the mother’s nervous breakdown to moor the  young narrator’s more whimsical life with his aunt and uncle.

Like Family Stone, Hallstrom’s  Once Around, not a successful movie in many ways, has a similar unlikebale character, Richard Dreyfuss, dropped into a warm consciously inclusive family.  Hallstrom though has the sense to play it gently and not to work too hard to redeem his most obnoxious character or suddenly change him.  Bezucha’s film, on the other hand, is hellbent on making everyone happy and thus misses the point of dramedy which is that family life is bitter sweet rather than zany sweet and calculatedly painful in turns.

Bezucha starts out  Parker as a shrill parody of an overachieving business type who barks out orders to associates on her cellphone while Christmas shopping, a role that must have been on sale at the cliché factory in the hidden Hollywood basement.  While Mulroney works hard, Bezucha makes no effort to make us understand why he’s so smitten with Parker, other than the fact that she’s better at business than he is.  The two then get dropped into Mulroney’s self-consciously progressive, but ever so slightly judgmental, family which demonstrates its sensitivity and oscar worthiness by signing whenver Giordano is in the room.  

Predictably, Parker strikes out as she swings for the fences in a living room where no one  even follows baseball.  She then calls in her sister, Danes, who for some totally unexplained reason is nothing like her, to come help her out and advance the part of the plot that’s so old that even Shakespeare visited one too many times.

The movie has some fine moments at least partly because the actors are genuinely talented.  There are silent scenes of palpable tenderness between Keaton’s acerbic mother and Nelson’s moral center father.  Luke Wilson  makes a genuinely funny stoner scratching under his shirt as he talks to Parker in the driveway in the snow.   Macadams does her bit as the family’s “Mean Girl”.  Bezucha also finds a way to give Danes an earthy but still glamorous magnetism that almost make the holes in the plot fade away.  There’s also a very effective scene when Parker delivers her Christmas gift to all the members of the family and catches the resonance of plot elements of which she can’t be aware.  

Unfortunately, Bezucha, who came out of advertising, forces the elements as if he were doing demographics analysis for a commercial.  Too much of the movie feels photo shoot calculated from the perfect New England bus stop where snow happens to fall at the right moments to the various never a hair out of place or uncoordinated but ever so casual look of the family members. One never for a moment believes this might be a real family or an actual town.  By its nature, dramedy is manipulative, but it’s also supposed to be heartfelt and the elements are supposed to work together.  Instead of mixing in this movie, they bounce right off our hearts made more like stone than flesh from watching this movie unfold.  


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