The Family Stone is all about Sarah Jessica Parker’s hair. So the movie’s first shot is a tight close-up on the scrunched whorl of her character’s coiffure, as, moby clamped to her ear for (hiss!) a business call, one-woman nightmare Meredith Morton does some frantically neurotic Christmas shopping around Bloomingdales (or wherever it is). Fiancé-to-be Dermot Mulroney waits tolerantly at the checkout; “Let It Snow” jingles button-pushingly on the soundtrack. The movie is quickly establishing, in shorthand, several things: it’s a Christmas flick! It’s going to be about letting it all hang out! And it’s going to be every bit as dreadful as you’d feared.
To contrast with Parker’s scraped, brittle ’do – with the name Meredith, it’s some kind of birthright – we have the luxuriant hairstyling of her prospective in-laws, from the swept-back, distinguished grey of paterfamilias Kelly Stone (Craig T Nelson), to the salt-and-pepper helmet of his sick wife Sybil (Diane Keaton, who seems to be turning into Elaine Stritch) to the lovely, reddish-brunette locks of daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams). And so on and so on. Brothers Ben (Luke Wilson), Everett (Mulroney) and even gay, deaf, cuddly little Thad (Tyrone Giordano) round out the ensemble with thick, enviable crops of their own. This family, it’s immediately obvious, have never wanted in their lives for love, laughter, or expensive hair products.
Meredith, on the other hand, has a hairstyle that’s almost invisible from the front and appears to be pulling her face off. The movie zooms in on it with the judgmental, eyerolling zeal of Joan Rivers at a red carpet première. “I’m not a completely ridiculous person,” she assures Everett at one point, but we have our doubts; writer-director Thomas Bezucha spends the first hour of his movie watching this pitiful fish out of water flap and gurgle, while the Stone family take against her boring, bigoted conversation, ridicule her uptight notions of decorum (she insists on sleeping in a separate room from Everett), and generally tear strips off the poor woman.
Meredith isn’t so much a person, then, as a human piñata, and the movie’s pillorying of her – it’s Sally Kellerman in M*A*S*H all over again – is far too cruel to generate any Meet the Parents-ish comic friction, or dramatic friction, or anything much. I wouldn’t want to be too vicious towards Parker, because it really is an unsalvageably awful role, but Bezucha encourages her to overplay Meredith in ways that make her every scene pretty much hell to watch. She drops a cringeworthy double-bombshell at the dinner table, clumsily getting herself tarred with racism and homophobia in the same breath, and it’s basically an excuse for the Stone family to close ranks on her and demonstrate their impeccably warm and cosy liberal worldview yet again. (I’d much rather watch the equivalent scene in Guess Who, actually – the only good bit in that movie, but it did have the virtue of being funny and genuinely confrontational at the same time.) Bezucha, for his part, keeps docking points off Meredith and giving them to the Stones, and I think it’s a cheap, offensive tactic; I also can’t remember the last time (short of Monster, or maybe Mary Reilly) that a film’s leading lady was so unflatteringly trussed and lit, here simply as a one-stop shortcut to characterisation.
You know Meredith’s hair is going to come down, eventually, but you’re also pretty sure she’s still going to be an unattractive pain even then, and so it proves. Bezucha’s film makes the usual festive feints towards generosity and inclusiveness, but the arc of his ensemble dramatics is so botched and glib that there’s virtually no will, good or otherwise, left in the well by then: we’re asked to believe that no fewer than six of the movie’s characters discover True Love over the course of a couple of deeply dull late-night conversations. Wilson’s epiphany entails mumbling his way through a horrendous speech about dreaming of Meredith in the snow (“I was the snow”) while Mulroney, finally getting around to second thoughts about this peculiar being he calls his girlfriend, shacks up with an inexplicable Claire Danes, as her slightly more human, considerably more underwritten younger sister Julie.
With its shamelessly derivative UK poster, The Family Stone is trying to position itself as this year’s Love Actually – another tinselly package of laughter and tears for our seasonal delight. But it elicits none of the above, and feels very much like a gift you dread opening – take a look at that hideously gaudy title montage and tell me it doesn’t prompt instant despair. Amid music cues lifted from every other Christmas flick in recent memory, the moment that really made me want to tear my hair out was the bounding obligatoriness of Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance from The Nutcracker (you’ll know it when you groan hearing it) accompanying the ostensible comic climax, as every cast member does their best to bump into one another, chuck food around, and generally compete for the kooky idiocy prize. In fact, the only thing you can hear rattling around inside this movie’s monumentally vapid gift-wrapping – apart from a whole load of gone-off old chestnuts – is Rachel McAdams, who manages to make Amy the most unapologetically mean-spirited of the Stone clan, but also the only one we actually want to spend any time with. There was a vocal “Oh, fuck” from one reviewer when the movie appeared to end and didn’t: she spoke, eloquently, for the whole screening room, or at least for me. D–