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Rock and a Hard Place

Holiday togetherness gets tested in The Family Stone

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Just as family holidays hold too many expectations of Hallmark card perfection and harmony, holiday movies often disappoint by promising a degree of insight and truth into the dysfunctions and traumas of family life that they are incapable of delivering.

As national angst has skyrocketed, the Christmas in Connecticut and Miracle on 34th Street's have been replaced by more curdled offerings in the genre of dysfunctional family cinema a la Pieces of April, Home for the Holidays and The Myth of Fingerprints.

The Family Stone initially promises a Meet the Parents-spin on yuletide trauma.

New York City uber-yuppie Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) accompanies her equally uptight fiance, Everett (Dermont Mulroney), home to meet her future in-laws, where in keeping with the rules of the game, they proceed to ostracize her.

Residents of a cozy, womb-like Connecticut mansion, the Stones drive rusty Volvos, put little faith in dressing up, love cooking and old movies, and in other ways appear to be the archetypal slightly nutty WASPs that spooked Woody Allen in Annie Hall.

These are, however, WASPs of a distinctly contemporary sort, who embrace their gay -- and deaf -- son Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and his black husband, Patrick (Brian White), openly discuss their youngest daughter Amy's (Rachel McAdams) "cherry popping," and welcome rather than shun any discussion of art and homosexuality.

Director Thomas Bezucha couldn't make it any clearer if the Stones hung a rainbow flag and passed the family bong around that these people are "tolerant" with a capital "T." The primary hitch in his narrative giddyap is the brainteaser of why their tolerance is so severely tested by the arrival of independent career woman Meredith. Especially repulsed is baby sister and Mean Girl McAdams, whose Amy is a self-righteous slacker who objects to Meredith's citified, uptight ways. The explanation for the Stone family's disdain may just be a larger cultural ambivalence about career women like her, who put business and success above home and family.

Robert De Niro was a bridegroom's nightmare in Meet the Parents, but queen bee Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton) and her short-leashed husband, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), are Meredith's sand trap. Sybil is an Oedipal pinup fiercely devoted to her grown-up sons and critical of any woman who enters her familial love nest. She switches from warm and lovable to demonic with ease. One minute Sybil is trading recipes with her gay son-in-law and the next she's threatening a conniption when someone loans out her favorite coffee mug to Meredith. Sybil's one redeeming feature is in being played by Keaton, whose charisma and eccentricity make it understandable why she would be tolerated, even beloved, by her children.

One of the immediately apparent chief problems with The Family Stone is one of casting: Parker may be too sympathetic, self-effacing and neurotic at this point in her career to make a convincing bitch. One ends up disliking the critical Stones for their mystifyingly cruel treatment of Meredith and not reviling Meredith as we are clearly meant to.

But the film isn't without its entertainment value, mostly in the dynamic that emerges between the skittish Meredith and her personal savior, the laid-back brother Ben (Luke Wilson). Perhaps initially motivated by the sexual charge of a woman as uptight and repressed as Meredith, he valiantly pulls her above the family fray.

Ben's humanity and remove from the family psychodramas go a long way in suggesting something decent circulating beneath the Stones' clannishness. Ben also provides a needed segue to the film's melancholy conclusion as this dramedy does an emotional about-face and suggests that behind all of the Stone cold wariness is fear of change and what it will bring.

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