[Screen It]

(2005) (Sarah Jessica Parker, Diane Keaton) (PG-13)

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Dramedy: A tightly wound woman meets her boyfriend's eccentrically diverse family that seems to have it out for her.
For the tightly wound Meredith Morton (SARAH JESSICA PARKER), the Christmas holidays are going to be anything but merry. That's because she's about to meet boyfriend Everett Stone's (DERMOT MULRONEY) family, and if her earlier encounter with his snarky sister Amy (RACHEL McADAMS) was any indication of things to come, it's not going to be pretty.

As the couple pulls up, Amy -- fangs fully bared - tells her family that she hates Meredith and informs them of her tics and other behavior. Her mother, Sybil (DIANE KEATON), also doesn't seem to like Meredith, but that's due to a combination of some bad news and the fact that she thinks Everett is going to ask her for her mother's wedding ring to give to Meredith.

Others in the family aren't as bad, with father Kelly (CRAIG T. NELSON) and his pregnant daughter Susannah (ELIZABETH REASER) seeming nice enough. Son Thad (TY GIORDANO) and his boyfriend Patrick (BRIAN WHITE) are also there, as is the more laidback son Ben (LUKE WILSON) who seems to enjoy seeing his family getting worked up into a lather.

In fact, things get so bad that Meredith eventually goes to stay in a motel, calling in reinforcements in the form of her more outgoing sister Julie (CLAIRE DANES). The fact that the family immediately likes her -- especially Everett -- only makes Meredith feel more uncomfortable, but she does her best to maintain her composure and try to fit in. With unexpected guests, such as Amy's erstwhile boyfriend Brad (PAUL SCHNEIDER), showing up along with unexpected revelations, this is going to be one interesting Christmas at the Stone home.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
While certain films come to represent their particular plots thanks to financial or critical success -- mention shark movies and "Jaws" automatically comes to mind -- one must remember that there are often predecessors as well as films yet to be made that play off the same subject matter and/or storyline.

Take, for example, pictures about characters introducing their significant others to their parents for the first time. In today's market, one naturally thinks of the two recent "Meet the Parents" films. In the past that could range from the lowbrow antics of "Son in Law" to the socially conscious "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (and its contemporary remake "Guess Who"), all playing off the modified fish out of water plot where the guest is the landlocked guppy.

Now one can add "The Family Stone" to that collection, although it also deserves a place in the holiday family dramedy category, the likes of which are usually released to coincide with that time of year. You know, they're the ones where the eccentric family is together for the holidays and a mixture of slapstick, romance and schmaltz are expected to be found under the wrapping.

As written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, this easily could have been one of those annoying and overly sentimental offerings that tries too hard to make you cry in between laughs (and I'm sure there will be viewers and critics alike who see it just that way and will react with the usual humbug response), all while showing clips from some previous holiday classic (in this case 1944's "Meet Me in St. Louis). And while there may be problems related to that as well as other plot mechanisms, I actually found myself somewhat entertained and even touched a bit by what transpires.

Like its predecessors, the film needs to set up the character contrasts from which the humor and eventual sentimentality will flow. Accordingly, Bezucha establishes Sarah Jessica Parker's Manhattanite as the opposite of Carrie Bradshaw, meaning she's an uptight and tightly wound women with apparent low-self confidence who's just wandered (or, more accurately, been dragged by her boyfriend played by the nearly always stiff Dermot Mulroney) into a hornet's nest of bohemia and pre-judgments in her boyfriend's New England family home.

Accordingly, his mother and sister -- embodied by Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams -- instantly dislike the intruder and don't give her a chance to become acclimated to them, thus causing her to stiffen even more. The fun is then supposed to stem from watching her wince at their seemingly cold and callous treatment of her, all while her attempts to be social end up backfiring on her, thus perpetuating the already strained relationship. Bezucha and his solid cast do manage to get some laughs out of that setup, with some of the material also striking sensitive chords, such as a discussion about whether parents should ever wish any of their kids to be gay.

Since Keaton's mom figure has just jokingly said just that about her gay son -- played by Ty Giordano -- the material thus is afforded the opportunity to segue from comedy to drama. And with there being more to Keaton's response than just natural maternal protectiveness -- obviously stemming from the inevitable Lifetime TV type revelation about a certain character -- the film can continue on its path toward the touchy-feely material designed to get the watery works flowing and the lump growing in one's internal isthmus.

As the film zigs and zags its way -- sometimes less than gracefully -- between character-based comedy, slapstick and sentimentality -- various flaws are easy to note. For one, it's far too predictable, not only with the inclusion of its cast of eccentric, Hollywood style family members, but also in the way in which it unfolds. Rather than fun or heartbreaking revelations, the illness of the week and final couples pairings probably won't surprise many viewers (although they'll probably root for the latter while tearing up over the former).

Then there's the fact that Parker and Mulroney's characters don't seem a natural or believable fit from the get-go. Perhaps if we had spent more time with them before the family scenes, we might have believed in their relationship or at least witnessed what's made them be together. As it stands, their relationship seems like just a necessary contrivance to get the plot ball rolling.

Some of that, of course, is also supposedly designed to allow us to more easily believe in changes of heart that (predictably) occur later in the film, such as him too easily and suddenly falling for his future sister-in-law (played by Claire Danes who mysteriously gets top billing in the credits).

Yet, not enough time or attention is paid to such matters to make those developments believable or as engaging and enjoyable as they might have been. The same holds true for how some of the characters develop or at least change their tune -- in particular, the one played by Rachel McAdams who eventually drops her aggressively mean ways thanks to a single, sentimental photo of her mom.

All of that aside, enough winning individual moments, performances and bits of material are present and help overcome some of those problems. Despite her otherwise nasty demeanor and at least until the above change of heart, McAdams is a hoot in her role as the snide brat. Luke Wilson is entertaining as the laidback member of the family, and Keaton and Craig T. Nelson get some decent moments together regarding the sentimental stuff that easily could have been too syrupy and/or melodramatic, but -- at least in my view -- hit just the right emotional notes.

And for some viewers it will likely hit the right holiday family movie ones. While it's far from being brilliant in either that or the meet-the-parents genre, there's enough here that works to create an amusing, somewhat endearing and occasionally touching flick. "The Family Stone" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 9, 2005 / Posted December 16, 2005

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