The Family Stone (20th Century Fox) directed and written by Thomas Bezucha, is a very heavy-handed home-for-the-holidays romantic sitcom with cancer thrown into the mix—which makes it both a would-be crowd-pleaser and a wriggling hunk of Oscar bait. There are cringe-worthy passages and an overly sentimental structure (everyone pairs up so very tidily), but the performances are delightful, and the picture comes together.
The liberal, sturdy, nurturing Stone parents, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) and Sybil (Diane Keaton), have five children, and, all things considered, they’ve turned out handsomely. Everyone signs lovingly in the presence of the deaf son, Thad (played by the deaf actor Tyrone Giordano), and the family has nothing but affection for his African-American husband, Patrick (Brian J. White). Although forlorn in the absence of her traveling-on-business spouse, the very pregnant Susanna (Elizabeth Reaser) has a spunky daughter (Savannah Stehlin) to keep her spirits up. Amy (Rachel McAdams) is a tad sardonic but an attractive presence. Ben is a bit of a rover—but he’s played by Luke Wilson, so he’s sensitive and, well, Luke Wilson.
So, where’s the conflict? It’s the new girl. Everett (Dermot Mulroney) has arrived with a brittle, stuck-up, illiberal, and overly ambitious fiancée, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker); and despite the family’s assurances that they like her very much, they don’t like her a bit—especially when she wrecks Christmas Eve dinner by suggesting that a gay child (as opposed to a “normal” one) might be something that a parent wouldn’t wholeheartedly welcome (because, you know, it’s such a tough life). Happily, an ethereally beautiful alternative to Meredith arrives in the form of Meredith’s do-gooder sister (Claire Danes, never more ravishing).
Despite the destabilizing shrew—who is nevertheless endearing in her insecurity—The Family Stone depicts a fundamentally healthy ecosystem. In fact, it’s the most idealized family imaginable. I mean, where do I sign up? I don’t buy them, but there’s a part of me that wants to—and thinks a movie like this gives us all something to emulate.
The brisk dialogue and the actors who deliver it usher The Family Stone into the realm of real. Sarah Jessica Parker-haters will be awed by the bang-up job she does as the highest of high-strung fiancées that populate these sorts of movies—and her big drunk scene, in which her inhibitions explode, explodes whatever inhibitions we might have about her. Nelson and Keaton have a gentle and comfortable rapport—unusual for Keaton, who’s usually the high-strung one in a movie. This is the latest in a long line of stupendous Keaton performances. Her Sybil is an unusual but irresistible combination of warmth and tartness, of the determinedly upbeat and the haunted. She is not “the mother.” She’s a woman with strong maternal feelings who nonetheless has to work at the job—i.e., a real person.
There are no real people in The Producers (Universal)—only actors laboring to dispel whatever magic they once were thought to possess. The director, Susan Stroman, has brought the Broadway smash to the screen (where it began, almost 40 years ago) with cataclysmic results. The stage performances haven’t been scaled down: Everything is pitched to the second balcony. And Mel Brooks’ material—especially the retro queeny stereotypes—is excruciatingly dated. On stage, Nathan Lane gets by on hamminess and good timing, but on screen there’s no subtext, nothing in reserve: He’s more one-dimensional than the average cartoon character. Broderick, in the footsteps of the peerless Gene Wilder, pops his eyes and speaks in a strangled voice that’s completely artificial. If this were the only thing I’d seen him do, I’d conclude he was wholly without talent. Uma Thurman sings well and slinks better, but the songs are short on melody and the role is a bimbonic disgrace. The only time I laughed was when an actor auditioning for the role of Hitler said, “I was in No No Nietzsche, and Lane said, “You were Nietzsche?” and the actor said, “No no.” Amid the shrillness, second-rate vaudeville patter lands on the ear like Shakespeare.