Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Family Stone

If I knew how to add sound to this blog, I would cue the Family Stone Waltz to set the tone here. Remember the opening credits whose wintry greetings nod Meet Me in St. Louis? Those singing violins and biting flutes that cut off Meredith's pinched holiday shopping tactics mid-micro-manage? One of the best opening scenes in history, I say. Cuts right to the chase.

I'm pleased to announce that I know more about The Family Stone than any movie I've ever loved. Not only have I watched it repeatedly since its release but I've also studied the Sarah Jessica/Dermot Mulroney commentary so many times its embarrassing. Its my favorite. And the dad reminds me of my dad. Which has nothing to do with anything but he does and it makes me proud.

I remember seeing this movie for the first time and wanting to talk about it afterward. So much of it struck me as insightful and real and rare for films today. I've referenced it three times in three different blog entries so far and I do think about it often. And yes, I see the humor in my sentiment... most of you probably feel this way about The Godfather, Shawshank Redemption, or Schindler's List. Well, it is what it is and I see this film as important.

The Family Stone was written independently but when Diane Keaton signed on, a studio picked it up and created the star studded event as it stands today. But it was an indie script-- a very small, earnest film about a grown-up family and their Christmas at home.

Keaton and Parker shared a dressing room, or so I hear, which we can imagine was as intense Meredith's little power suits at 8am pre-coffee. If you know anything about Diane Keaton, you know that she wouldn't have gone easy on the former Ms. Bradshaw. But Parker held her ground, and as any good New Yorker might, brought the Times to breakfast and discussed politics, economy, the arts, and business for hours. Everything was on the table and there for the taking. Yikes. The casting was intentional, people. Keaton and Parker don't fit and they weren't supposed to. The differences leaked into the film perfectly-- a complicated family dynamic that couldn't be faked.

This film, much like Vicky Cristina, is lovely in its observation of character. My sisters and I will laugh the entire way through, paying attention to lines like 'running for mayor,' 'hounds tooth? hounds tooth?' 'just as fast as the wrist allows,' and 'that's on Hong Kong side!'... our favorite character is probably Brad, who has a TIMELESS reaction to Meredith announcing that she slept with Ben. Watch that scene, you'll know it immediately.

Its on par with Meredith slapping her head and freezing mid-dress as Kelly walks in on her Christmas morning. Its equal to Amy's confusion when she opens the door to Brad with an armful of awkward poinsettias that you know he picked up at the grocery store on his way over. Watch Luke Wilson open his gifts. Watch Susannah interact with her daughter and watch Sybil mention Kelly's overdue haircut. This movie pays attention to real people. And its set up like old Hollywood. Perfect.

The story unfolds in college town New England in a big old white house whose cold mornings you can practically feel. The light hits that whiteness that only new morning snow can produce (most clearly in the Christmas Eve morning scene... 'I don't care if you like me or not!' 'Oh. Of course you do.') and immediately we want a cup of coffee. Sybil wears a robe and scarf for most of the weekend, driving this point home. Its an old chilly house and they are the type of family who would live in an old chilly house in a college town in New England.

Rachel McAdams as Amy wears one of the rarest and most poignant costumes I've seen in any film: weird dinosaur t-shirts, glasses that she's had since high school, and too thin, too big, too short pajama pants that probably came from Old Navy. The film hits every key in perfect pitch so that it doesn't have to explain why or where. We know that Amy is probably a really cute dresser at college or in the classroom. She probably owns a flat iron and wears knee high leather boots a lot. But this is Christmas vacation, and she is wearing whatever is left in the drawers at her parent's house. Again, no one tells us this, it is assumed. If the film is successful in hitting these subliminal details-- and this one is--the obvious need not be stated. It gives the audience intelligence and the characters room to live in the present.

This film's importance comes through in the dialogue. One scene in particular shocks us into the highest form of discomfort and tense reaction... so much that we stop breathing with Kelly's sharp slap to the table (notice Everett's mirroring reaction earlier in the film). Thad and Patrick are to adopt a baby. Clare Danes, as Julie Morton, directs a few questions of the process... do they have a preference on race?

They are a gay couple, Patrick is black, and Thad is deaf (a point in this movie that I LOVE. I once had an entire subway conversation with a deaf man using only signs that I learned from The Family Stone). The odds are clearly against them. They both smile and answer Julie's question with an understanding no, they just want a baby. Meredith picks up on how comfortable and successful Julie is in interacting with this family and and their complex issues and chooses this point to interject her own insights into the conversation. We can read her sudden comfort and excitement at the chance of contribution.

This is where we begin to feel sorry for Meredith. She doesn't get it and is trying way too hard. Her comments dig her deeper and deeper into an opinion degrading to this family and to the gay community as a whole. She does it to fit in but instead, her words circle back and slap her quick. Its so hard to watch.

Meredith escapes to O'Reily's with Ben and two random EMT guys, one of whom we are introduced as the imminent Brad. Julie and Everett go after her and get lost in each other instead. Sibyl regrets the distance she is drawing with Everett and Susannah tearfully watches Judy Garland's red velvet twirling at the end of Meet Me in St. Louis (nod number two.)

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Let your heart be light.
Next year all our troubles
Will be out of sight

We had all forgotten that Sybil is dying of breast cancer and that this is their last Christmas together. The film isn't about that, not in the least. But it suddenly kicks up the heartstrings and draws us in with more felt investment. The interlude turns the film on its head and begins act II... think Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

The final long comedic sequence commences in The Nutcracker Suite's sharp and familiar Trepak. Meredith is crying and covered in raw egg strada, Brad introduces himself to Julie mid-fight, and Everett realizes that he was never in love with Meredith to begin with. Its funny and clever and the essential Christmas chaos. This is only topped by Meredith's soft and offhanded humming of the second verse of Joy to the World while lying in bed with Ben.

Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy

Everyone has settled into themselves and into their places. Meredith and Everett are the biggest culprits, in costumes revealing a sudden comfort and relaxation in the form of a hooded sweatshirt, a thin heavy metal t-shirt, and long, uncombed hair. They aren't together and they were never supposed to be. All is good, and lovely, and well. And here again enter the high violins and the fresh fallen snow.


HL said...

I'm Amy Stone.

La said...

So wonderful to have my love for this movie articulated into words....LOVE this post. Definitely agree that this film is above Shawshank Redemption, the Godfather, and Schindler's list in my book (and so much more fun to watch!). So true that Amy's outfits are typical home-on-Christmas-break type things...totally agree that those are too thin old navy pajama pants. Also love when she pulls up in the station wagon with her npr tote bag and overflowing laundry basket that she struggles with while trying to clothes the car doors. Never really thought about how dad is like the dad on this film, but he is. I love that every time I watch this film, I notice a little detail I didn't notice before. Brilliant.

Jen Pasko said...

Ok I don't even think I need to say how much I love this movie...The new england picturesque scene makes my heart want to melt....The blurb about Meet me in Saint Louis is beautiful I had never thought of it that way...I must see that movie now....Tis the season

Jean Hantman said...

O’Malley’s bar