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Take Two 

by Luke Baumgarten & r & The Family Stone & r & 'Tis the season for offbeat, dysfunctional family comedies. Oh, how the viewing public looks forward to the familiar holiday setup. Uh oh, junior's brought home a girl/boy Mom/Dad's not gonna like! What's this? He/she is going to propose? Calamitous!

That's exactly the conceit you'd guess at from The Family Stone's trailer and, sure enough, that's exactly the conceit you get. Same as Meet the Parents, same as Guess Who?, same as Son in Law. If you expand the search to include any family reunion-type setup with at least one outsider character to scorn then spurn, the sample size balloons to infinity. There are, though, some nice tweaks of formula here. It's the family Stone who are (yuppie-ish, New England) bohemians while our interloper, Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), is the uptight one.

So that's nice, but there are so many characters and so many intertwining stories that it's really hard, especially in the first act, to get a clear idea of who any of these characters are. Is the seemingly progressive Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton) actually a heartless, close-minded prig? Is she a prig in progressive clothing? As for Meredith, she's uptight to the point of absurdity. The Stones' eldest, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), wants Meredith to marry him, but we can't, for the life of us, figure out why.

There's an initial busyness to the film -- all the various members of the Stone diaspora trickling back in amid all the regular holiday preparations -- that attempts to, and partially succeeds at, distracting us from how little we understand these people.

Once that calms down, things get worse. Because, really, only two sides of the central love quadrangle -- involving sisters Meredith and Julie (Claire Danes) and brothers Everett and Ben (Luke Wilson) -- are remotely real characters. Everett, ostensibly the chief protagonist, is a mere shell around which writer/director Thomas Bezucha has draped some rather insipid personality traits. Julie is far more complete a character, but she only gets half-dozen scenes to work with. Only Ben is solid, a yogi-like stoner throughout. Meredith's flatly dour facade cracks as the film progresses, revealing hints of humanity.

So it's up to the remaining family members, Sybil, husband Kelley (Craig T. Nelson), and daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams) to keep the thing afloat. McAdams is excellent at playing the mean girl, and she does so here with considerable nuance. Keaton, too, is great playing a matriarch who is trying to make sure her family is prepared for the future without telling them why she's doing it. The most intriguing thing about these Stones is that, while they're not all perfectly fleshed out, they're all multi-faceted. When Kelley, for example -- a nice, compassionate guy -- catches himself getting entangled in all the backbiting, he feels a genuine, tender shame.

Though The Family Stone is flawed, Bezucha makes one great choice not often made in your baser holiday-detritus films. Unwilling to cop to a pat happy ending, he instead offers a delicate, reluctant hope. And hope, if I remember Sunday school, is what Christmas is all about.

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