The Family Stone, by Albert W. Vogt III

I never enjoyed Sex in the City.  That was a fact before I began practicing the Catholic Faith.  That statement was not intended to be sexist, either.  It was not the thing for this guy, at any rate.  It is more of a personal indictment against Sarah Jessica Parker.  I cannot think of too many titles of hers that I enjoy.  I vaguely remember Failure to Launch (2006), though if I enjoyed it at all it was because it had Zooey Deschanel in it.  I like her.  Other than that . . . I cannot say.  I describe this all only to contextualize some dimly recalled moment where I saw a preview for The Family Stone (2005), today’s film, seeing Parker in it, and immediately dismissing it.  However, since I submit my movie watching to be hostage to you, my adoring fans, when it was suggested, I watched it.

It is Christmas time and the title clan in The Family Stone are coming together to celebrate the holidays.  You can tell immediately, though, that something is going to be different this year.  The matriarch, Sybil (Diane Keaton), sits in front of a half-decorated tree staring dully at it.  The first to arrive is her hearing-impaired youngest son Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and his partner Patrick Thomas (Brian White).  This begins to renew her spirits as it is a sign of the happy days to come, or so she hopes.  We next see her eldest son Everett (Dermot Mulroney), who lives in New York City with his girlfriend Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker).  When they get to the house, Meredith’s nerves begin to show: she is apprehensive about the Stone family and wants to make a good impression.  This comes out in her desire to sleep separately from Everett despite their shared living space in New York, and the Stone’s openness to such an arrangement.  That is not all they are open to, but we will get to that later.  To accommodate her, they put her in their youngest daughter Amy’s (Rachel McAdams) room.  Amy is on hand for the room exchange and she is none too pleased.  She also has prior experience with Meredith, having had a dinner with her and Everett that apparently did not go well.  Also coming to the house is the elder, and pregnant, Stone daughter, Susannah Stone Trousdale (Elizabeth Reaser), and her child, Elizabeth (Savannah Stehlin).  The last of the Stone’s to get to the house is the free-spirited Ben (Luke Wilson).  It is probably a little silly to refer him as “free-spirited,” as if that makes him any different from the rest of the family, including the heretofore unmentioned dad, Kelly (Craig T. Nelson).  Whatever it is that they think of Meredith, despite Kelly’s limp-wristed attempts at mediation, they think that her rigidness is all wrong for Everett.  This is made evident in the Stone’s passive-aggressive behavior toward’s Meredith, and expressed plainly by Sybil when Everett asks her for his grandmother’s ring to propose to Meredith.  Sybil refuses.  So bad do things get that Meredith feels compelled to leave to get a room at an inn, calling her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come for emotional support.  Kelly is able to bring Meredith back, but Julie’s insertion into this situation adds another wrinkle to this mess.  When Everett lays eyes on her, it is love at first sight.  At the same time, Ben begins to develop feelings for Meredith.  After a disastrous dinner (more on this later as well), Meredith storms off with Ben close on her heels.  However, this is not the only bombshell of the gathering.  As the chaos swirls, one-by-one Sybil lets her children know that this will be their last Christmas together as she has terminal cancer.  Good times, right?  Anyway, Everett and Julie grow closer as they go out together looking for Meredith. Meanwhile, Ben and Meredith are taking in a local bar, and she is getting roaring drunk.  She also finds that she might have feelings for Ben, too.  For the time being, the next morning, Christmas morning, everything is snapped back to reality when Meredith wakes up in Ben’s bed.  In the midst of the fighting, the jealousies, the sadness, the newfound loves, Meredith mechanically hands out gifts to each of the Stone offspring.  It is a picture of Sybil, pregnant with Amy.  Meredith is unaware of Sybil’s condition, and thus does not fully grasp how touching of a present she has given them.  Mistaking their silence for disapproval, she stalks off to the kitchen to prepare a breakfast she promised them.  Yet, in her discomfiture she spills the contents of the dish she had so delicately made the night before, and this sends her into a cascade of sobs.  However, the Stones rally around her, and all is mended.  The film closes with a sequence the following year.  Sybil is gone, but with the brother girlfriend switch seemingly okayed by everyone else, they get back together to renew their tradition.

The Family Stone is an awkward movie.  Of course, when we watch a movie set during Christmas, we want to see happy families renewing their bonds in the light of the joy of Jesus’ coming into the world.  At least I do.  On so many levels, though, this is seldom the reality.  Never mind the apparently increasingly forgotten reason for the holiday, some of the more painful times of our lives tend to come just when we are supposed to be our happiest.  I can speak from personal experience, but I would rather not do so.  It is not a fun subject to discuss.  At any rate, I am sure there are those of you reading this that can relate.  Regardless of my Catholic stances on some of the specific issues of the film, like gay parents or a family open about their kid’s sexuality, I could do without some of the reminders it brings to mind.  I am an idealist.  I also recognize that not everyone has the same ideal.  That is okay, too, though I pray that whatever it is that others believe that it does not lead them into sin.  It is also sad to me that there are some that could watch a film like this one and think to themselves that it is normal.  Let me be clear: the Stones are monsters, not necessarily for their philosophies but for the way they act.  Even if they do not believe that Everett should marry Meredith, that does not give them the right to treat her as they do, particularly when she is so obviously doing her best to please them.  At one point she is told that she is trying too hard, but neither is she ever recognized for her effort.  I find this appalling, and it made the film difficult to watch.

The hardest part of The Family Stone to sit through, though, is the dinner scene.  Yes, if it were real life, it would be super awkward to see your brother dating the sister of your ex-girlfriend, and vice-versa, but that is less germane to what makes the movie a tough one.  At the fateful meal, the subject of Patrick and Thad adopting a child is discussed.  It soon gets hostile when it leads to Sybil talking about the subject of Thad’s sexuality.  She admits that she wanted all of her children to be gay, and even encouraged them in that direction.  Meredith counters by vehemently disagreeing with such parenting, and then also says that it is a bad idea to raise a child in a homosexual household.  This enrages most of those at the table because Thad is everyone’s favorite, regardless of orientation.  Soon, Sybil is roundly insulting Meredith and Kelly is slamming his hand on the table shouting for order, like a judge in a courtroom.  Now, I may agree in principle with Meredith.  Homosexuality aside, as well as the Church’s stance on it, children are best raised with a male and female influence in the household.  Of course, I claim no expertise in the matter as I am not a father myself.  What I actually found worse about this situation is Meredith’s reaction.  I am a pacifist in most cases.  Part of this is my nature, part of it is my religious beliefs.  Either way, had I been in Meredith’s place, I would have demurred in favor of harmonious relations, especially at Christmas time in the house of a person I thought I might marry.  A part of the Christian life I struggle with is being a good evangelist.  Given my teaching profession, I feel like I come off as lecturing when I speaking about the Faith.  I do not think that is the best way to draw people to your side.  Instead, I try to be a good example.  If somebody wants to ask about my Faith, then I will tell them, openly and honestly.  However, I am not going to pigheadedly insist on certain matters in the middle of what is supposed to be a happy occasion.  The Bible does talk about their being a time and place for everything.

In sum, I hope to never see The Family Stone again.  I think there are aspects of it that are supposed to be funny, but which did not induce laughter with me.  The Stone family is a bit too out there for me, not just in their openness.  Kelly and Ben at one point share a weed brownie.  I could never imagine doing that with my dad.  That is simply something neither of us would do, alone or separate.  There is no other objectionable material.  It is just a little under two hours of horrible people being mean to each other.

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