One after another, characters pile into the snow-covered Stone household like refugees, till at last it's filled with every conceivable archetype known in hackdom. There is gay and deaf son Thad (Tyrone Giordano), who brings home for the holidays his longtime African-American partner, Patrick (Brian White), whom the family adores like kin. There is doper son Ben (Luke Wilson), who smokes bowls with the old man (Craig T. Nelson) in Christmas Eve snowdrifts. There is grungy, troublesome daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams), who has a sneer smeared across her face.
There is pregnant daughter Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), whose husband is absent despite promises of arriving Christmas morning (the suggestion here is that Susannah is suffering marital woes, which is a distracting, unnecessary, and ultimately fruitless threat). And then there is eldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney), a buttoned-up boy who brings with him an uptight girlfriend, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), who's so bereft of spunk and warmth the family, of course, loathes her -- save for Ben, who spies through his stoner's haze Meredith's "freak flag" that she keeps furled inside her. And hovering over them all is the good mother, Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton), one of those beloved, tragic figures without whom home-for-the-holidays movies wouldn't be the same. (Sybil, too, appears to be related to Barbra Streisand's outspoken, sexed-up Roz Focker; when Everett explains that Meredith wants to sleep in separate rooms, Sybil taunts her son, "So what you're saying is that you just don't screw.")
Good Lord, this oughta stink, and it occasionally does; writer/director Thomas Bezucha, a former Ralph Lauren exec, doesn't allow even one shot of the gay couple kissing or the pot smoker actually smoking pot, suggesting a skittishness toward revealing anything too honest in a film ostensibly about ordinary people. Instead, there's a labored scene involving Meredith crashing a car twice while trying to escape a family argument, and another in which Meredith literally undoes her bun and lets down her hair in order to prove, yes, she can in fact be a good-time gal after all.
Bezucha stuffs his holiday fruitcake with enough extras to gag on: the kindly drab ambulance driver (Paul Schneider), who took Amy's virginity years ago and still pines for the sarcastic princess; Meredith's beautiful sister (Claire Danes), who shows up to back up her embattled sibling; the precocious 6-year-old granddaughter (Savannah Stehlin); and the precious baby Thad and Patrick adopt. There's even some sibling-swapping (the trailer gives that away), and the film stoops to swiping Judy Garland's performance of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from Meet Me in St. Louis to wring tears out of the audience -- and it's never a good sign when a movie appropriates another movie's emotions in place of its own.
And yet. And yet ...
Bezucha, working overtime like an elf at the assembly line on Dec. 23, has almost accidentally hit upon a rather novel concept: a melodrama played for laughs. That should by no means be read as an apologia; the movie somehow doesn't elicit its titters accidentally -- say, because it has overreached and failed -- but because its laughs are genuine. Wilson, for instance, hasn't been this affable and accessible since his debut in Bottle Rocket; his performance is casual and effortless, as though he dropped in for a day and stayed for the month. McAdams, too, is delightful -- snarky at first, but allowed to thaw as the film progresses.
Why The Family Stone works isn't hard to fathom: It's sweet and sincere, and treats its characters not like the cardboard cutouts they appear to be on paper, but as, well, family. The Stones dislike Meredith not just because she's sour and anxious, but because she isn't a member of their team who's earned the right to Everett, his grandmother's wedding ring, or just a seat at the holiday table. Meredith's fractious relationship with the family feels dead-on; she, too, has every right to hate people who treat her so callously.
Perhaps it's the holiday season that engenders this inexplicable feeling of good will; perhaps by June The Family Stone will have lost all its contagious charm. Till then, at least, it's the perfect end-of-the-year trifle: a warm, earnest little gift that, at the very least, doesn't know when to stop giving.